In case you hadn’t heard, Elon Musk’s brain chip called Neuralink has been approved for human trials. What was once the stuff of sci-fi could be a part of everyday life a lot sooner than we think. But this isn’t just about the tech. No, this asks much wider questions about how purpose and innovation come together. Let’s take a look.
Neuralink’s mission statement has a purpose at its absolute core: “create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow”. Who wouldn’t be inspired? The thought that this tech could redefine what’s medically possible is a dream come true. In fact, there was a recent success story for another new device that allowed a paralyzed man to walk for the first time. It re-connected his brain to his spinal cord which enabled him to walk using his thoughts (after extensive training). This is exactly what innovation should be about.
At the same time, it would be naive to assume the potential of this tech was limited to human health. And that funders and investors might not have broader reasons for their interest. Take Facebook for example. Its promise as a platform is to connect the world. It has most certainly done that. Every second, this platform facilitates an incalculable number of connections, laughs, reunions and memories. It’s become a fundamental part of communities around the world. But Facebook is also the next evolution of advertising technology and data collection (both consensual and non). Who’s to say that Neuralink won’t be an equally double-sided coin?
That brings us to an interesting point around privacy. Every new wave of technology washes away just a little bit more of it. We’ve had the internet, we’ve had mobile phones and social media – could this be a new era for privacy and data ownership? For example, with AI, it has full scope to mine content with no money or recognition for the original creators. Would this escalate with an electronic prosthetic? How much say would its user have over the data it collects from their everyday experiences? Privacy debates are an ongoing conversation that, if nothing else, kit like Neuralink will be sure to contribute to.
Speaking of contribution, we have to think about what people and perspectives are driving this kind of technological innovation. For one, it’s important not to take an ableist view on technology’s medical capabilities. Who is pinpointing what the problems are and how they will be solved? Is it the people that experience them? Prime example: a recent workshop taught us that not everyone with hearing loss wants it to be changed. The idea of “fixing” people is loaded. As someone with unimpaired hearing, it was far too easy to make the assumption that this was the case. There is an embedded bias in all tech that exists across every intersection of human experience: from racial bias in facial recognition to driving safety features that are significantly less effective for women. It is an inevitability that the rampant inequalities in our society will bleed into new technologies without careful consideration.
None of these questions and thoughts are exclusive to Neuralink; it’s any piece of technology and innovation. And while the potential of tech like this isn’t one-dimensional, probing the range of possibilities actually creates room for purpose and innovation to come together in a more authentic, impactful way.