In addition to owning Twitter, Elon Musk is also the head of a company that develops neural interfaces to be implanted in the brain. A double hat that carries significant risks, warns a technology ethicist based in Switzerland.
This content was published on November 11, 2022 – 15:30
Elon Musk, the American tycoon at the head of many innovative companies, including Tesla and SpaceX, continues to make waves. The acquisition of Twitter, finalized at the end of October, adds a new piece to the digital puzzle of this outstanding entrepreneur.
A visionary and controversial figure, Elon Musk makes people smile as much as he worries. Besides his ambition to electrify the world and colonize Mars, he thinks he can one day connect the human brain to artificial intelligence. To this end, in 2016 he founded the company Neuralink, which produces neural interfaces intended to be implanted in the brain.
These devices, which are experimented mainly on monkeys and pigs, are still far from having achieved their goal. But thanks to data from the approximately 330 million active users of Twitter, Neuralink could accelerate the development of invasive neurotechnologies, that is to say brain implants capable of reading and even manipulating the human brain, by influencing their behavior, memories, thoughts and emotions. In any case, this is the fear expressed by Marcello Lenca, expert in the ethics of neurotechnology at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL).
Switzerland is heavily involved in the development and regulation of technologies that interface with the human nervous system. However, according to Marcello Ienca, the small Alpine country will not be able to do much on its own to counter the advance of systems and platforms capable of influencing public opinion.
swissinfo.ch: Why do you think Elon Musk is “morally unfit” to be both Chairman of Twitter and CEO of Neuralink, as you recently stated in a postExternal link?
Marcello Ienca: The fact that the same person owns both one of the world’s leading companies producing neurotechnology that can be implanted in the brain and a social network that collects the sensitive data of millions of users is quite disturbing.
Anyone involved in the development of neurotechnology capable of reading and influencing the human brain should adhere to very high moral standards. This is not the case with Elon Musk. We are talking about an eccentric character who already uses his Twitter account to behave like a chief web troll, condition the stock market performance of his companies and politically influence millions of voters and citizens, as we have seen. during the campaign for the last American midterm elections [Elon Musk a incité l’électorat à voter pour le parti républicain, ndlr].
Nothing in his behavior suggests that he is willing to give up manipulating public opinion for ethical reasons, which makes him unfit to develop brain-interface technologies, the area of utmost moral importance. that is.
On paper, however, there is no connection between Neuralink and Twitter. How can tweets help neurotech companies develop devices that can influence the human mind?
A tweet can say a lot about a person. He can give clues not only about his political and religious beliefs, but also about his thoughts, emotions and different psychological states. Thanks to artificial intelligence, it is possible to analyze a person’s feelings based on language. This process, called Natural language processing for sentiment analysis [traitement du langage naturel pour l’analyse des sentiments]allows you to extract psychographic information from a tweet [c’est-à-dire la classification des utilisateurs et utilisatrices sur la base de caractéristiques personnelles et psychologiques] with a good degree of statistical reliability.
This makes it possible to understand, for example, whether an individual is more prone to positivity or negativity, risk or fear, and then bombard them with advertising campaigns or targeted information, whether true or false. We can cite the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which engaged in psychographic profiling by improperly accessing Facebook user data in order to influence them politically.
It is currently difficult to extract this very sensitive information from brain data resulting from the use of neurotechnologies, in particular because the number of users is limited. But if this brain data is combined with the psychographic data of millions of Twitter users, it is possible to dramatically improve the capabilities of not only the social platform, but also neurotechnology. This ultimately makes it possible to understand and classify people on the basis of psychological characteristics in order to influence and manipulate them massively.
Facebook also tried it in 2018, launching a brain-computer interface, a project that Mark Zuckerberg then abandoned, probably for cost reasons.
So should we expect that the neurotechnologies developed by Elon Musk will soon be able to read and condition the human mind?
It’s possible. Today, neurotechnology does not allow deep mind reading, but it is already able to establish statistical correlations between brain data and psychological information, which raises privacy concerns. . When the number of users – and therefore data – increases, the risk of having more invasive devices for mental privacy is also greater.
In this case, it would no longer just be a question of treating patients suffering from mental and neurological problems, who could benefit enormously from these technologies, but of marketing devices that could be used by an increasing number of people to record the activities cranial and optimize mental processes, concentration and memory. There are already brain-type devices on the market fitbit to monitor sleep, attention and anxiety. Some apps even allow you to control physical objects with your mind.
>> Here is an example of a nine-year-old macaque using neurotechnology:
Is Switzerland equipped to counter the risks associated with neurotechnology and protect the privacy of its citizens?
Switzerland is perhaps one of the best placed countries in the world when it comes to studying the ethical and social implications of neurotechnologies and developing innovative regulatory instruments to meet these challenges.
The federal government actively participated in the drafting of the OECD recommendations on responsible innovation in the field of neurotechnologiesExternal link, which now constitute the first international standard in this field. And organizations such as GESDAExternal link (Geneva Science and Technology Diplomacy Anticipation Summit) have placed neurotechnology at the heart of their program.
However, Switzerland alone would be powerless against Elon Musk or any other global enterprise. Its ability to protect the privacy and mental integrity of a relatively small user base is limited. On the other hand, the European Union, which has more than 400 million inhabitants, would have greater negotiating potential, since it would be inconvenient for Elon Musk to give up this user base.
Translated from Italian by Samuel Jaberg
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