Putting Elon Musk and His Brain Chip on A Psychiatrist’s Couch
Carole Lieberman, M.D., M.P.H.
What is Elon up to now?
After much fanfare, Elon Musk opened the curtain – in a style reminiscent of P.T. Barnum – to display the progress that he and his company, Neuralink, have made with their marvelous magical brain chip. A brilliant and creative man, with inventions like Tesla and SpaceX to his credit, he has proven he can go where no man has dared to tread. However, this time, he is treading too far. He wants to get inside your head, literally. His implanted brain chip will purportedly link human brains to computers, in a kind of AI symbiosis, solving spine and brain problems seamlessly. He promises to cure everything from paralysis to Parkinson’s, blindness to brain damage, anxiety to addiction, and deafness to depression. He also, with a twinkle in his eye, promises the ability to hear music inside your head and play video games just by thinking about your next move, though it’s not clear why one would need to do this with a brain chip when we have already have ears, eyes and hands.
Why is he really doing it?
Although Elon leads with the more physically oriented uses for his brain chip, such as dementia and stroke, his real passion for his pet project is its potential to fix psychological problems, notably his own: anxiety and depression. He was as anxious as a schoolboy doing his “Three Little Pigs Demo,” especially when his star pig, Gertrude, did not want to perform for the audience. This anxiety is a remnant of his traumatic childhood, which included a dysfunctional family, parents who divorced when he was 10, and relentless bullying from his schoolmates that landed him in the hospital. In addition, Elon also suffers from bipolar disorder, as evidenced by his volatility and mood swings. In a tweet, he once wrote, “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress.” Asked if he could be bipolar, he answered, “Yeah,” then backpedaled and said, “Maybe not medically tho. Dunno. Bad feelings correlate to bad events, so maybe real problem is getting carried away in what I sign up for.” Paranoia is often a symptom of bipolar illness, and Elon’s fear of Artificial Intelligence has risen to this level. Indeed, he touts his chip as Man’s only way to avoid being taken over by AI in the next five years, and Neuralink’s mission statement is: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
What could go wrong?
There is much potential danger lurking in this quest to hook humans up to machines. For starters, although Elon compares the surgical procedure needed to implant the chip to a simple, benign Lasik procedure, it is far more complex. A hole is made in the skull and a robot guides threads from the chip into the brain, like a 21st century sewing machine. Any brain surgery carries risks – from infection to neuron damage – even when the surgeon is a robot. Another danger is hacking. Just like laptops, ATMs, cars and other computer systems can be hacked, the brain chip could be hacked, and people made to do an endless number of things they can’t control. He acknowledges that memories can be taken out and others put back in, and, although he clearly has some from his childhood he would like to replace, the rest of us might not want to risk being robbed of ours. At Elon’s recent demonstration, he was asked whether his chip could be used for telepathy. He joyously answered that it could, and then backtracked, saying it should be “consensual telepathy,” of course.
What should happen next?
Elon announced that the purpose of his big reveal was to recruit thousands of people to join Neuralink. But, before Elon goes any further with his marvelous magical brain chip, implanting it in pigs and people, he should actually spend some time on a psychiatrist’s couch dealing with his demons from childhood and his underlying bipolar illness, so that he can rethink the impact of his invention. Once he understands his unconscious motivation for trying to ‘fix’ brains, notably his own, he will be better able to weigh the collateral damage his chip could cause – stripping us of our humanity – against the far-fetched hope of battling AI and winning. Musk has said of his chip, “This is both great and terrifying!” Hmm… sounds a bit like “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
Carole Lieberman, M.D., M.P.H. is a board-certified Beverly Hills psychiatrist, award-winning author and media commentator on newsmakers and society.