What might Elon Musk do to your brain? He’s successfully demonstrated that a deep brain implant can monitor a pig’s health like the Fitbit on your wrist. After this success, Musk is coming after you. He plans to install slender electrodes into your brain and connect them to a wireless pod that sits behind your ear. Neuralink chips could “measure temperature, pressure and movement, data that could warn you about a heart attack or stroke.”1 This pod or terminal then communicates with your phone. If you want to know what your brain is doing, simply check your phone.
Now, this is puzzling. Mmmmm? Who’s checking that phone? Your brain? Or, you? What if you and your brain are the same? Mmmmm? Will checking the phone for brain information provoke the brain to become self-aware? Then what? Will you have two selves: you plus your brain? Oh, this thinking makes my brain tired. Mmmmm? Will my cell phone show that my brain is tired?
What might be the advantages to deep brain implants? First, in the early stages of neuralink development for humans, we can realistically anticipate the medical value of deep brain implants. “The potential is truly transformational for restoring brain & motor functions,” Musk states. A deep brain implant could function therapeutically to combat dementia, Alzheimers, and even Christian fundamentalism!
The second advantage would be memory enhancement and knowledge expansion. Because the implant is wirelessly connected to an external pod-terminal, information could be sent to the brain and downloaded. A deep brain implant for an ELCA seminarian could electronically place in the student’s memory every word of the Book of Concord.
A third possibility is the hope of the Transhumanists among us, namely, Intelligence Amplification or IA. Don’t confuse IA with AI, Artificial Intelligence. IA enhances your intelligence; it does not create a second or artificial intelligence.2 With IA, our ELCA seminarians could take all their courses online and graduate in only two years. Oh, wait?
A fourth possibility would be electronic psi. Each of two persons with brain implants could communicate their thoughts wirelessly to the terminal, which in turn would send those thoughts to the other. No need for speech or writing. Thought to thought. Mind to mind. Disagreements and arguments without yelling or screaming.
A fifth possibility adds on to the fourth. Why wait for a thought to be sent to you? Why not think your way to the terminal and then read the mind of the other? The electronic pod terminal could eliminate mental privacy.
Before this neuralink science came along, there was science fiction. I explored these plus additional implications of deep brain implants in my fictional espionage thriller, Cyrus Twelve. My heroine is Leona Foxx, a Lutheran pastor, riveting preacher, astrobiologist, crack shot, Chicago Cubs fan, and part-time CIA operative. This is fiction, remember.
In Cyrus Twelve Leona uncovers a globe-wide syndicate of Transhumanists who use the equivalent of neuralink to enhance spying capability. In this drama, the pod-terminal is a satellite and it connects hundreds of persons with deep brain implants. The satellite is capable of erasing an individual’s memory and substituting an entirely fabricated memory. Because the implant is within you, you cannot muster any defense from informational input sent you by the satellite. You cannot shut off fake news, advertising, or orders to kill. Imagine what would happen if ELCA Churchwide would get control of that satellite? Every spy in the world would suddenly learn what “justification-by-faith” means.
The advancement of deep brain electronic implants prompts the theologian to ponder two matters, one theoretical and one practical. The theoretical matter is this: can the human soul or self be reduced to the brain? My answer is no. The human self or person is utterly dependent on the physical brain, to be sure; but the self or person is more than everything physical or bodily. What we experience as human freedom I define this way: freedom is a form of self-determination. In short, I do not expect discoveries in the neurosciences to reduce the person to the brain.3
The practical matter is an ethical matter. How should such awesome technology be used? Should deep brain implants become the stock and trade of international espionage, as is the case in Cyrus Twelve? No, of course not. Our society should rather support ongoing medical research leading to therapies and even enhancements. Like all technological advances, neuralink should be pressed into the service of human flowering.
Ted Peters is a pastor in the ELCA and Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science for the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. He is author of God – The World’s Future (Fortress, 3rd ed., 2015) and editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF Press, 2019). More of Peter’s work can be found on his website, TedsTimelyTake.com.
- Stephen Shankland and Jackson Ryan, “Elon Musk shows Neuralink brain implant working in a pig,” C/NET (August 29, 2020) https://www.cnet.com/news/elon-musk-shows-neuralink-brain-implant-working-in-a-pig/. ↩
- For a serious treatment see: Ted Peters, ed., AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? Volume 5 of Agathon: A Journal of Ethics and Value in the Modern World. Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum, 2019; DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvrnfpwx; http://atfpress.com/?s=Ai+and+IA&post_type=product OR https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvrnfpwx?turn_away=true . ↩
- See: Ted Peters, “The Struggle for Cognitive Liberty: Retrofitting the Self in Activist Theology,” Theology and Science 18.3 (August 2020) 410-437; https://doi.org/10.1080/14746700.2020.1786219. ↩