Q&A: The Ethics of Using Brain Implants to Upgrade Yourself

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Improving on evolution

Spectrum: You’ve written about people’s concerns that human enhancements are “going against nature.” But you think there are ways to identify human enhancements that are feasible and a good idea, right?

Sandberg: When I’m suggesting an enhancement, the skeptical listener says, “If that’s such a good idea, why hasn’t nature already done it?” It’s true that evolution has optimized our species, so it’s like messing with something that a master engineer has built. But nature optimizes for different things than we care about as modern humans. Nature cares about us having a lot of grandchildren, but a good human life might not involve having any kids at all. So we differ in our value functions from evolution.

There are also situations where the trade-off might have changed. Our brains use about 20 percent of the energy from our metabolism, they’re really expensive organs. So having a larger brain would require us to eat more, and birth would be trickier too. So there are reasons why evolution can’t give us bigger brains. But today we have C-sections and we have far too much food anyway. So the equation has changed, and if there are enhancements that would make our brains bigger, that could be better.

One thing to consider: We might not know why something is around, but still suspect it’s dangerous to mess with it. Take sleep: Spending one-third of your life unconscious, at risk of attack from predators, that’s weird, that’s a huge cost. But we find it in all animals, and something that looks like it in insects. If you force animals to stay awake, they’re not healthy and they die after a couple of weeks. So an enhancement that removes sleep might be very risky. We should start with the suspicion that it will be very hard to improve on the existing sleep system.

Spectrum: Could we view brain enhancements as just another human adaptation to environment?

Sandberg: In a way. This environment in some ways is a dream come true for our caveman ancestors. Right now it’s raining outside but I’m watching from this nice dry office, which is brightly lit. But if Nick rushes into my office and says, “Where’s that book chapter?” my blood pressure goes up. The fight-or-flight response is adaptive for a bear attack, but not for coming up with a creative excuse for why this book chapter isn’t ready. Ironically, we have created an environment that we’re not well adapted to.

Over generations, evolution will make humans more and more safe in traffic. After a million years of an unchanged culture, we would be better drivers. But we don’t want to wait a million years, so we make better cars. And my brain didn’t evolve to help me look at symbols on a screen. So I can take a drug or use technology to enhance my focus and attention, which will help me survive in this environment.

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Elon Musk’s and Facebook’s big plans in brain tech

Spectrum: Elon Musk has started a mysterious neurotech company called Neuralink to develop a new type of implant called neural lace. Musk has said that we need to improve the human brain so we can keep up with artificial intelligence, which is improving so rapidly. Do you think brain implants can keep us from being subjugated by superintelligent AI?

Sandberg: I remember when he made one of his early proclamations—there was a bit of face-palming around the office because it sounded so stupid. It’s hard to make the argument that we can enhance ourselves to stay one step ahead of machine intelligence. It can run its programs very fast, with lots of copies working at once. The human biological brain is going to be a bit of bottleneck. It might still be a great idea to make ourselves smarter and better able to handle things, so we should probably try. But it’s not going to help us keep ahead of the machines.

Another argument is that if we merge with machines, then we’ll be on the winning side. Philosophers have an idea of extended minds, which means we don’t live just in heads, but also in the phones and calendars that hold part of our cognitive structure. In that sense, I have already merged with the machine. If AI takes over the world and turns it all into paperclips, I would be on winning side—but it wouldn’t feel like winning.

Spectrum: Facebook has also announced that it’s developing a brain-computer interface, but theirs will be a non-invasive system that reads out “intentional speech” in the brain and types it out as text. Does that technology sound more promising to you?

Sandberg: That depends on the mechanism used to read out from the brain. If you need to sit down with your thinking cap, it might not be too bad. Other mechanisms might make it very easy to send off a message that’s very insulting, although maybe that message came from just one part of my brain, and that wasn’t my intention as a whole person. Also, as soon as that technology exists, you can imagine law enforcement wanting to try it. We’ll see—getting from the lab to a commercial product is a grueling process. First they have to get it to work.

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