Neural lace: it sounds like something a cyborg might wear to a wedding, but it’s also yet another future technology Elon Musk has added to his eccentric potential inventions list.
Just one problem with that: the fictional sci-fi series that coined “neural lace” doesn’t suggest we’ll have a fine time with such brain implants — and it also represents exactly the kind of future that Musk himself has said he’s trying to avoid.
The Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City founder has already inspired testing of the high-speed Hyperloop and quietly put thousands of potentially self-driving cars in users’ hands. Musk spits out gigafactories and Powerwalls and subtle solar roofs. His brain, though unenhanced, never quits.
If he isn’t rhapsodizing about terraforming Mars, or sending tourists to the moon, or promising to fix a state’s energy crisis, or wondering whether we might all be living in a computer simulation, he’s fretting about how artificial intelligence might become self-aware and powerful enough in the next decade to make human beings obsolete.
It is this fear of an AI planet that propelled Musk into his latest venture, Neuralink Corp, a name that sounds like a good setting for a Black Mirror episode. Neuralink’s job: to investigate the possibility of nanotech netting that clings to the brain and can upload and download thoughts and feelings.
Why? Because “I don’t love the idea of being a house cat” to AI, Musk said at the Code conference in June last year, the first time he brought up neural lace.
What that means exactly isn’t clear (I often think my house cat lives a pretty enviable life), but the bottom line is Musk sees neural lace as a leg-up in man’s coming war for relevance once our computers get smarter than us — adding an “AI layer” to ourselves.
But as the genie once said: be careful what you wish for.
Culture of vultures
The concept of neural lace comes from Iain M Banks, the late great author of the Culture novels. A copy of at least one of these inhabits most sci-fi nerds’ shelves: Look to Windward, Player of Games, Consider Phlebas, and 7 more.
The Culture is a vast interstellar utopia of some 30 trillion beings, and is set more than 9 millennia in the future. It is comprised of multiple alien races, including our own. Life is essentially limitless. Disease, hunger, money: nonexistent.
It’s anarchy, in the best sense of the word. The most prevalent problem: boredom.
Neural lace even controls your sex life
The fact that most everyone in the Culture has neural lace doesn’t help that problem. Every fact is at their fingertips. A decade before smartphones became a thing, Banks’ characters lament “those vacant expressions you got used to when people were consulting a neural lace.”
(So concerned is Banks with this zombiefication, he uses that exact line in multiple books.)
Like many technologies, the lace can take away as much as it gives. It connects you with anyone at all times; we Facebook denizens know what a mixed blessing that can be. It wakes Culture residents by pumping adrenaline through their systems at their preferred wake-up time: there goes your morning coffee.
It even controls your sex life: “The neural lace would have handled his orgasm sequence better,” laments one character in Excession, a man named Leffid who decides to forgo his own lace — because he’s a hipster, basically, and primitivism is in fashion. Removing your lace is the 31st century equivalent of buying vinyl.
Still, here’s Leffid loving life without his lace:
Although there was no physical alteration and he looked just the same to everybody else, he’d reckoned he’d feel more different. Which he did. It was oddly liberating to have to ask things or people for information and not know precisely what the time was and where he was located in the habitat.
But it also meant that he was forced to rely on his own memory for things like people’s names. And how imperfect was the unassisted human memory (he’d forgotten)!
The liberation of imperfection is what many of Banks’ more interesting characters are seeking. No wonder most of his stories are set on the fringes of the Culture, among the agents and diplomats and other seekers who wander the non-Culture universe. Restless souls are much more interesting than laced-up zombies living lives of ease.
A Mind is a terrible thing
And here’s the kicker for Elon Musk: the Culture is governed by powerful AI entities. They’re called Minds, and they’re basically God: all powerful, all good. They control the economy and produce everything; no need for entrepreneurs any more, and no financial reward for them either.
There are no laws in the Culture, because the Minds sit in judgment of everyone. In serious cases — crimes of passion still exist, apparently — they will follow you around with drones to make sure you don’t do it again.
What could possibly go wrong with that system?
In effect, Culture residents are house cats in a house the size of the universe. Lace or no lace, the AIs are large and in charge. And they’ve got a pretty dry sense of humor about this stuff that organic beings stick on their brains.
Here’s a student named Ulver Seich examining a torture museum aboard the starship “Grey Area,” itself governed by an AI. After looking at thumbscrews and Iron Maidens, she comes across something she can’t place:
It was a little bundle of what looked like thin, glisteningly blue threads, lying in a shallow bowl; a net, like something you’d put on the end of a stick and go fishing for little fish in a stream. She tried to pick it up; it was impossibly slinky and the material slipped through her fingers like oil; the holes in the net were just too small to put a finger-tip through. Eventually she had to tip the bowl up and pour the blue mesh into her palm. It was very light. Something about it stirred a vague memory in her, but she couldn’t recall what it was. She asked the ship what it was, via her neural lace.
~ That is a neural lace, it informed her. ~ A more exquisite and economical method of torturing creatures such as yourself has yet to be invented.
Take it from the Minds that Musk is trying to save us from: Neural lace is not the answer. We’ll have far better existences if we keep our smartphones quite literally at arm’s length, rather than implanting them directly in our skulls.