Feeling inclined to let Elon Musk stick a computer chip into your brain? You do you.
Just be warned: according to a fascinating story by Insider, research has linked brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) like the one Neuralink is working on to bizarre, unpredictable and little-understood cognitive changes — including some that might completely alter your identity and sense of self.
"Of course [the BCI] causes changes," Anna Wexler, a philosophy professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told Insider. "The question is what kinds of changes does it cause, and how much do those changes matter?"
Researchers stress that they're not exactly sure why BCIs — other than the fact that they're uh, literally inside of your brain — cause such changes, but that the changes happen is clear. Sometimes, scientists say, they can even be positive, particularly in cases where brain-related illnesses may have caused patients to feel far away from themselves.
"Many felt that the disease had robbed them, in some ways, of who they were," Wexler continued, adding that illness "really impacts your identity, your sense of self, if you can't do the things that you think of yourself as being able to do."
But in other cases, patients have reported back feelings of estrangement, or even that the implant makes them feel unlike themselves. The lack of an ability to self-identify is, unsurprisingly, deeply unmooring — so much so that there has been at least one known attempted suicide as a result of BCI-induced self-alienation.
"The notions of personality, identity, agency, authenticity, autonomy, and self — these are very compact, obscure, and opaque dimensions," Frederic Gilbert, a philosophy professor at the University of Tasmania with a specialty in applied neuroethics, told Insider.
"Nobody really agrees on what they mean," he continued, "but we have cases where it's clear that BCIs have induced changes in personality or expression of sexuality."
Musk's Neuralink — which the SpaceX and Tesla founder has described as a "Fitbit in your skull" — is far from the only BCI around. Cochlear implants, which work to help deaf folks "hear," have been around for decades, while chips designed to predict seizures in epileptic patients, as Insider points out, have also proven to be a helpful BCI use case.
But that's where Neuralink and similar products differ. Most of the existing BCIs on the market, as well as the majority of BCIs in development behind the scenes, are designed for specific medical purposes. Musk, though, has framed Neuralink as less of a medical aid and more like a smartphone or smartwatch — that, he says, will soon be streaming music directly into your brain or even allowing you to compete with super-advanced AI.
And while someone with paralysis, Parkinson's, debilitating mental illness, or any other ailment might be understandably inclined to risk potentially very bad BCI side effects, those reaching for a brain chip in order to track their steps or work smartphone widgets might want to think extra hard about what, exactly, sticking a Fitbit in their cranium is worth.
READ MORE: How brain chips can change you [Insider]
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