The chip connecting human brains to computers could be a step in the direction of an eery Black Mirror episode...
And if we could learn one thing from Black Mirror, Dr Who, or pretty much any other sci-fi, it’s not to tease the boundaries of artificial intelligence. Elon Musk is optimistic that Neuralink could give humans 'superhuman cognition’ by merging human brains with AI technology. But what does this mean - Superhero powers? Absolutely not. In fact, having unnaturally increased cognitive abilities, and constantly being connected to computers, could bring with it a whole host of frightening futuristic problems.
We know that cognition is not a word or topic that is usually thrown into everyday conversations... so what is cognition, and why could a brain chip be such a bad thing? We've put this blog together as a cheat sheet so you can get yourself clued up and join the controversial discussion. We've gone into quite some detail, so if you're looking for bitesize info you might want to skip to the bottom!
What is cognition?
Cognition refers to the mental processes which encompass all forms of knowing and awareness. This includes: - Perceiving
- Remembering - Reasoning
- Judging - Imagining - Problem Solving It is one of the 3 major components of what we refer to as the mind. With your cognition in a healthy state, you can:
- make good decisions
- use your experience wisely
- focus and get things done
- process different tasks quickly with speed and accuracy
- plan and organise
- use your creativity
- have good self- (emotional) control.
Interestingly, your cognitive behavioural skills also support your immune system, helping it to regulate cortisol (your hormonal response to stress). Cortisol is important as it helps your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. If you're under constant stress you often produce too much of the hormone, which can in turn derail some of your body's most important functions (like regulating your blood pressure), and can lead to a number of health problems (like anxiety and depression). A healthy cognition also enables you to perform well in higher order cognitive functions, such as comprehension (the ability to understand something), hypothesis generation (making educated guesses) and intuition (the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning) ... things that make you “smart”. What is Neuralink and what are the dangers?
Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk, is developing a revolutionary brain interface machine system (allowing the human brain to communicate directly with digital devices). Elon's dream is to have a computer inside everyone’s brain, which seems to be partly driven by a fear of a dystopian future. By merging ourselves with AI, Elon believes this means we won't get left behind an inevitable takeover of AI. The link is inserted into the brain using a bespoke surgical robot which recognises and avoids blood vessels whilst inserting the chip and its tiny wires. The brain is connected from that moment on.
Don't get us wrong, there is the potential for great things happening here (like helping to cure complex neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's, dementia and spinal cord injuries). Nevertheless, we often forget that the word 'great' does not always refer to something good. There is also great potential for Neuralink to have great negative effects. Some of these we'll explore below:
1. Overload & Burnout - If you put your cognition under too much pressure, even when it is relatively healthy, you can cause it to “burn out”. Cytokines (small molecules that communicate between other cells and regulate things like inflammation and the production of blood cells) , which are normally suppressed by cortisol, let rip in the brain and do a lot of damage. This can occur even when you're not aware of it! Whilst using technology our brains are constantly being stimulated and it's easy to feel like you're 'always switched on'. If the brain chip is always on in our head, this could put even more pressure on our cognition. Furthermore, if you were already struggling in an area, or all areas, of cognition, what's not to say that the Link would give you 'super cognition' in that area. Without understanding how to manage your cognition, this increase in activity in a struggling area could actually cause it to get worse. Imagine having 'super anxiety' or 'super depression' ... not a happy thought.
2. Ethics & Information/Data Security - Through the link, data would move freely between your brain and external devices. Neuralink would have much more access to your personal information than the likes of Facebook (which is already causing many to freak out). How could Neuralink guarantee that this data is secure? Mis-sold personal data, hacking, software bugs, and hardware defects could potentially use this information to directly threaten how your mind and body functions (no longer threatening just your technology). If the flow of information runs both ways between technology and your brain, it's also important to remember who would actually own that data, how much access they would have to it, and what level of control they would have.
3. Physical risk - The brain is incredibly delicate. It's the centre of our nervous system and the centre of our sense of self/identity. It's home to where we process data, our cognition, our emotions, feelings and desires. The brain is also not static, in fact it's always changing. It has the ability to form and reorganise different connections (especially in response to learning, experience or following injury). This is called neuroplasticity. The brain physically changes all the way through your lifetime, so adding a brain chip could potentially change how your brain develops or adapts to things like your environment and age. There is also the risk that the surgery could go wrong and lead to brain damage, which could be catastrophic and cause death, lead to a coma, or extreme physical and mental disabilities. Surgery itself also holds risks and complications and doctors usually only use invasive treatments as a last resort. Would it really be worth the risk?
How can I improve my cognition without a chip in my brain?
Fortunately, there are many habits you can adopt to keep your cognition in a good state.
Learning new skills that are out of your comfort zone can challenge you in a positive way, causing the growth of new and stronger neuronal (fundamental units of the brain and nervous system) pathways.
Good physical habits also have positive benefits. Optimal levels of exercise and sleep are critical for your cognition. A healthy, balanced diet supported by good levels of hydration is also recommended.
Interacting regularly with people who make you feel good, who don’t drag you down, are essential.
Get the right balance of all of these and you'll be well on the way to keeping your cognition and immune system healthy.
If you want to go one step further, you can use digital therapy apps such as MyCognition which are clinically validated to help you assess, restore and maintain your cognition. My Cognition is designed to be a “physiotherapy for the mind” which lets you track, treat and prevent poor mental health, builds mental resilience and can help rehabilitate after an illness or set back. Equally, it also acts like a “digital vaccine” if I you're looking for a mental boost.
We know this is a pretty comprehensive deep-dive into cognition, so in summary: 1. Cognition is an important part of your mind. With your cognition in a healthy state, you can; make good decisions, use your experience wisely, focus and get things done, process different tasks quickly with speed and accuracy, plan and organise, use your creativity, and have good self- (emotional) control. Your cognitive behavioural skills also support your immune system, helping it to regulate cortisol (your hormonal response to stress).
2. You have the power to unlock your brain's potential and increase your cognition at any point in your life. You do not need a brain chip, invasive methods, or any other scary technology to do so. In fact, just as you can improve your body through physical fitness, you can increase your cognitive skills through healthy habits or apps such as MyCognition.
3. Neuralink has the potential for scary consequences. It could put your cognition under too much pressure and cause it to “burn out”. It could exaggerate areas where your brain is already suffering, and potentially cause problems like anxiety or depression to be maximised on great scales. Your personal data and information could be owned by a giant corporation, hacked or manipulated. And it could affect your brain's development and neuroplasticity. Not to mention putting you through surgery, which in itself puts your life at risk.
Do you think this type of computer-human interface is a good idea? Let us know in a comment, we’d love to hear your views. Want to learn more about cognition? Read up on how your brain is actually quite a useful piece of PPE here.