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.

The new John Benneth policy

That loopy homeopath, John Benneth, is bragging now that he is the most widely read homeopath in the world, and that his blog has broken all previous viewership records. He’s quite proud of this “accomplishment”.

One of the last John Benneth Journal entries for 2010, IN ONE YEAR, has broken all previous viewership records and sparked more commentary and outrage amongst the pharmaceutical company stooges than any previous Journal entry, enlisting the usual fury and nasty responses.

He seems to be aware of how it happened: I linked to that one article. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate, though, is that what I giveth, I can take away, and that it doesn’t say much for homeopathy that one link from one blog can make such a dramatic difference in his traffic.

So, because he thinks it’s meaningful, I’ve added a little filter to this site: using “johnbenneth.wordpress.com” in a comment will get it held for moderation…and it won’t be approved. Bye bye, Mr Benneth.

You’ll have to look him up indirectly, as in this mention on FSTDT. Otherwise, ignore the loon.

I have a new hero

It’s Tracey Spicer, a commentator on an Australian radio show. If you do radio or TV, you must listen to her interview with Meryl Dorey, the wicked anti-vaxxer crank. There are no mealy mouthed pleasantries, there is no downplaying of the evil Dorey has promoted, Spicer simply rips into her and points out all the legal and scientific facts against her. Then, at the end, Dorey is asked about the fact that a legal judgment has been made against her requiring that she post a disclaimer on her website, which she has not done, and Dorey begins to give the address of her website instead of explaining why she’s flouting the law, Spicer cuts her off cold and kicks her off the air.

It’s beautiful.

I never listen to AM radio, and I rarely tune into television news. If we had a few announcers like Tracey Spicer over here, though, I’d actually use my radio.

Sweet justice

Power Balance is a company that prospered on gullibility: they sell overpriced silicon rubber wristbands with an imbedded hologram that do absolutely nothing, but which they claimed would enhance athletic performance. And they got suckers to shell out $60 for them.

The law caught up to them and forced them to publicly retract their claims. Here’s what you’ll find on their website now.

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility.

We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.

If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologise and offer a full refund.

To obtain a refund please visit our website www.powerbalance.com.au or contact us toll-free on 1800 733 436

This offer will be available until 30th June 2011. To be eligible for a refund, together with return postage, you will need to return a genuine Power Balance product along with proof of purchase (including credit card records, store barcodes and receipts) from an authorised reseller in Australia.

This Corrective Notice has been paid for by Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd and placed pursuant to an undertaking to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission given under section 87B of the Trade Practices Act, 1974.

I’d be jubilant, except that I expect this will make no difference at all to their scam. They’re still selling the same old garbage at the same extravagant price.

How innumerate are Americans, anyway?

I just saw a commercial peddling gold coins, going on and on about how the price of gold was soaring above $1300 per ounce, and showing this fancy glinting well-lit shiny gold coin and telling everyone the cost of gold meant the $50 price could only be guaranteed for 7 days. This coin is 14 karat 0.9999 pure gold clad! A little deeper in to the spiel, they mention that it contains 14 milligrams of pure gold.

Using their own numbers, by my calculation that means the $50 coin contains about 64¢ worth of gold.

It sounds like a tax on dumb people, to me. They’re probably snaring people who watch Glenn Beck and read the Wall Street Journal.