Neuralink and the delusional world of Muskians

I know, I’m getting a reputation as that guy who hates Elon Musk (I don’t, I hate hype), but his latest is just too much bullshit. He has bought a company called Neuralink, which has the goal of creating brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). OK so far. These interfaces are cool, interesting, and promising, and I’m all for more research in this field. But Musk gets involved, and suddenly his weird transhumanist-wannabe fanboys start hyperventilating. I double-dog dare you to read this puff piece, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future. It begins roughly here, with the claim that Musk is going to build a Wizard Hat to make everyone super-smart:

Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

But before I can bring you in the time machine to show you what I found, we need to get in our zoom machine—because as I learned the hard way, Elon’s wizard hat plans cannot be properly understood until your head’s in the right place.

I dared you to read it, because I’ll be surprised if anyone can plow through it all: it goes on for almost 40,000 words (I know, I pulled it into a text editor and confirmed it), and that doesn’t count all the crappy little cartoons scattered through out it. When the author says you cannot properly understand it without putting your head in the right place, he means you have to start with sponges and be lead step by step through a triumphalist version of 600 million years of evolutionary history, which is all about a progressive increase in the complexity of brain circuitry. It’s an extremely naive and reductionist perspective on neuroscience and intelligence that presumes that all you have to do is make brains bigger and faster to be better, and that computers extend the “bigger” part but are limited by the speed of interfaces, so all we have to do is improve the bandwidth and we’ll be able to battle the AIs that Musk thinks will someday threaten to rule the world.

All the verbiage is a gigantic distraction. It’s virtually entirely irrelevant to the argument, which I just nailed down for you in a single sentence…without bogging you down in a hypothetical history of flatworms and a lot of simplistic neuroscience. He summarizes Elon Musk’s glorious plan in yet another crude cartoon:

It is accompanied by much grandiloquent noise and promises of planetary revolutions, but what needs to be asked is “How much of this is real?”. The answer is…pretty much none of it. We are currently in the little blue ball at the lower left labeled “starting point”, and Musk has bought a company that is doing tentative, exploratory research on building BMIs (I guess that this whole field is new enough that they are all, by default, “cutting edge”). Everything else in the diagram is complete fantasy. Elon Musk has bought a company, and is cunningly trying to inflate its value by drowning the curious in glurge, techno-mysticism, and making shit up, which, because he has this mystique among young male engineers, will probably succeed in making him more money and fame, without actually doing anything in the top two thirds of that cartoon.

I do rather like how the third step is “BREAKTHROUGHS in bandwidth and implementation”. You could replace it with “And then a miracle occurs…”, and it would be just as meaningful.

Let’s add a little more reality here: Musk has a BS in physics and economics, and started a Ph.D. in engineering, which he dropped out of. He has no education at all in biology or neuroscience.

Another shot of reality: he’s buying this company in collaboration with Peter Thiel’s venture capital company. You remember Thiel, right? Wants to prolong the life of old rich people by transfusing them with the blood of the young? Libertarian acolyte of Ayn Rand who is now advising Trump on policy? If you think this is a recipe for a post-Singularity paradise, looking at the people backing it ought to tell you otherwise.

So why are these filthy rich people getting involved in this nonsense? Let’s ask Elon.

Fear and ignorance, like always.

They’ve imagined a huge, shadowy existential risk which does not exist yet — you might as well drive your decisions by the possible threat of invasion by Mole People from Alpha Centauri (oh, wait…they also fear aliens). They don’t know how AIs will develop or what they’ll do — nobody does — and they lack the competencies needed to guide the research or assess any risks, but they’ve got a plan for generating all the benefits. These guys are as terrifying to me as the Religious Right, and for all the same reasons.

They have fervent worshippers who will vomit up 40,000 words based on inspiration and wishful thinking, and then wallow about in the mess. It’s possibly the worst science writing I’ve encountered yet, and I’ve read a lot, but still, take a look at all the commenters who want it to be true, and regard grade-school and often incorrect summaries of how brains evolved to be informative.

Another con wrecked by casual sexism

You’d think people would learn: take anti-harassment policies seriously. They aren’t just well-meaning words that you post on your website to make yourself look good.

Odyssey Con, a science-fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin, is suddenly hemorrhaging guests-of-honor who are bailing out because a) a known harasser was working as the guest liaison, which is a bit like putting a pedophile in charge of the ball crawl at the playground, and b) the con administrators seemed to think they just needed to explain things carefully to the guests to make them change their minds, which makes it obvious that they are unclear on the concept.

It sounded to me like an epidemic of mere cluelessness on the part of the con, until I learned who the harasser was. Holy crap. It’s Jim Frenkel. This guy was a major blow-up in 2013: Frenkel was banned from WisCon for harassment. He was fired from his job as editor at Tor Books over these acts. How could you not know Frenkel was bad news, and how could you even consider appointing him to be a liaison with a woman guest?

There are two possibilities here. One is that SF organizers cannot remember anything older than 4 years ago (their childhoods must be great voids of memory, lost to them for all time) and they also don’t know how to use google, or some people at the con are consciously dismissive of harassment concerns and decided that this was the year they’d sneak their good buddy Jim back into the ball crawl, and hoped that all of those SJW pests had 4 year memory limits and were unable to use google.

Neither alternative speaks well of Odyssey Con.


You should also read this response by Brianna Wu.

What stands out to me the most in the whole harmful affair was a single line by Gregory G.H. Rihn, writing about “what would be fair.” He suggested a compromise between Monica and Jim Frenkel, the known serial harasser. In a world where sexual harassers are on one side, and women wanting to be treated with respect are on the other — women can never win. Rihn saw himself as an impartial observer, but he’s part of the problem in a way he can’t understand.

I need to go to more conferences

I have been away for most of this week, at an HHMI conference. It was enlightening and informative, and I came away with many new ideas. It was also a packed schedule, starting early in the morning every day and going on until late at night, and I was not keeping up with the news, so I missed a few things.

Bill O’Reilly was fired for his sexual harassment antics? About time.

Jason Chaffetz is not going to run for re-election, and may even retire early? Well, that was unexpectedly good news.

Now I’m really sad that my conference ended, because my time offline was accompanied by the increasing crumbling of the Republican asshole edifice. If only this conference had gone on for a few more weeks, imagine all that could have happened: I’d have become a somewhat better biologist and teacher, the Republican leadership would have all retired, Ivanka and Jared would be arrested for corruption, Donald Trump would have been indicted and impeached, the tensions with North Korea and China and Russia would have eased, the Syrian civil war would have ended, world peace would have broken out, the Catholic church would take their vows of poverty seriously and divested, turning over all their assets to NIH and NSF, and I would have won a Nobel prize for not blogging.

HHMI clearly needs to schedule much, much longer conferences.

Science in America

Neil deGrasse Tyson has a few words for you.

I agree with all of that. My concern is that we’re dealing with an industry — exemplified by creationism and climate change denial — that has built up a body of well-funded propaganda which allows their believers to rear up and say, Well, we are citizen scientists who have our own facts, and we say that the Earth is 6000 years old and global warming is just a natural cycle. They aren’t going to be impressed by published, verified facts about the natural world when they have something even more significant to them: validation of their biases, consilience with their holy book, resentment and paranoia about those damned ivory tower eggheads.

Tyson will reach the people who already support good science, and that’s important in sustaining resistance to ignorance. But I fear he will not change the minds of the dumbasses who currently hold the reins of power. All that we can do is work to throw them down. And that is a political solution to an existing situation in reality.

The Science March and partisanship

[Guest post from Sam Roy]

There is a lot of talk on the March for Science being “non-partisan” and above “politics.” Three points on this:

  • When science is under attack by the powers-that-be, the defense of science is a political act, and we should not shy away from this.

    What this regime has unleashed is potentially catastrophic in its consequences for humanity. Humanity confronts a warming planet, with rising sea levels, melting glaciers and extreme weather events causing droughts and famine; it is nothing short of a crime against humanity to accelerate this by denial of global warming, by muzzling of climate scientists, by de-funding this research, approving fossil fuels and oil pipelines, and effectively undermining any global response to this crisis. Humanity confronts increased incidence of global pandemics; it is nothing short of a crime against humanity to de-fund public health research. Let’s not forget Trump’s inhumane, mean-spirited and chauvinistic response to the doctors and nurses who went to Africa to deal with the Ebola crisis, tweeting, “The “US cannot allow EBOLA infected people back” and they “must suffer the consequences.” Imagine what his policies and response will be to the next pandemic outbreak!

  • The March for Science should be non-partisan, if that is to mean NOT favoring the “Democrats” over the “Republicans”.

    Let’s not forget that not a single prominent Democrat has come out and boldly proclaimed that evolution is a fact – all life on planet Earth evolved from common ancestors over nearly 3.5 Billion years. Democrats have constantly conciliated with Christian fascists and Biblical literalists who have waged well-funded and deceptive campaigns to undermine the teaching of evolution in schools. They did not oppose Betsy deVos, the Christian Fascist Secretary of Education, on this front despite her well-known and historic efforts to impose this worldview on society, denying generations of children the science of evolution and the scientific method. To rely on the Democrats to “save” and “defend” science is a fool-hardy enterprise.

  • But the March for Science should be Partisan – In the Name of, and For Humanity!

    The March for Science has a wonderful celebratory spirit in sharing science with the world.

    At the same time, let’s recognize that this regime – the Trump/Pence regime – is a fascist regime, posing existential threats to humanity, including with nuclear brinksmanship. Some say it may be true but it’s not useful or too scary or too polarizing. Imagine if some didn’t raise the alarm about AIDS, when the powers-that-be refused to even acknowledge it – because it’s not useful or too scary or too polarizing. Imagine if they knew in 1933 what we know now about Hitler and the Nazis. Let’s call scientific reality for what it is, let’s not make this mistake – for the sake of humanity.

    The terror unleashed on millions of immigrants in this country by this regime is very real, and is happening – right now! The world’s most devastating bomb short of nuclear was dropped – last week. Today they threaten an unbelievably catastrophic war against Korea. Imagine what harm this regime can do over the next few days, weeks and months with its levers of power, bludgeoning truth and repressing dissent as it carries out its horrors.

    We need to drive out this regime – at the soonest possible moment.

The gospel according to St Ray

Deja vu, man. Transhumanism is just Christian theology retranslated. An ex-Christian writes about her easy transition from dropping out of Bible school to adopting Ray Kurzweil’s “bible”, The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Many transhumanists such as Kurzweil contend that they are carrying on the legacy of the Enlightenment – that theirs is a philosophy grounded in reason and empiricism, even if they do lapse occasionally into metaphysical language about “transcendence” and “eternal life”. As I read more about the movement, I learned that most transhumanists are atheists who, if they engage at all with monotheistic faith, defer to the familiar antagonisms between science and religion. “The greatest threat to humanity’s continuing evolution,” writes the transhumanist Simon Young, “is theistic opposition to Superbiology in the name of a belief system based on blind faith in the absence of evidence.”

Yet although few transhumanists would likely admit it, their theories about the future are a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology. The word transhuman first appeared not in a work of science or technology but in Henry Francis Carey’s 1814 translation of Dante’s Paradiso, the final book of the Divine Comedy. Dante has completed his journey through paradise and is ascending into the spheres of heaven when his human flesh is suddenly transformed. He is vague about the nature of his new body. “Words may not tell of that transhuman change,” he writes.

I’ve never trusted transhumanism. There’s a grain of truth to it — we will change over time, and technology is a force in our lives — but there’s this weird element of dogmatism where they insist that they have seen the future and it will happen just so and if you don’t believe in the Singularity you are anti-science. Or if you don’t believe in Superbiology, whatever the hell that is.

Anyway, read the whole thing. I’m currently at a conference at HHMI, and we’re shortly going to get together to talk about real biology. I don’t think the super kind is going to be anywhere on the agenda.

Stormtrooping while female and brown

You would think this would be a dream come true for internet Nazis: a vidya game where you get to play as a Space Nazi in the Star Wars universe. I’m imagining, though, the shock they felt when watching this preview, and tough stormtrooper dressed all in black takes off their helmet, and big reveal…

The Stormtrooper Special Forces warrior is female! Aaaaaieeee! The dream is ruined!

Really, I’m not making this up. Some Nazi youth are horrified, and not just that the protagonist is female, but has brown skin.

It’s a SFF universe with magic powers thrown in, where spaceships have dogfights like WWI Sopwith Camels, and they’re concerned that including a woman is unrealistic.

Please. If you’re one of the people making that incredibly stupid argument that it isn’t canon, or that women all have teeny-tiny muscles, or that an alien race from long, long ago and far away would all be lightly pigmented, put away your video game controller, turn off your computer/console, and leave the basement. You have to learn about reality for a while.