As AI and robots rise up, do humans need an upgrade too?

Forget hacking a computer. Some researchers want to hack the brain to create human superintelligence to compete with AI.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
7 min read
Aaron Robinson/CNET

There is a chip implanted in my hand. I'm serious.

Two years ago, a tattooed man backstage at a Berlin tech show used a syringe to insert the chip. The process was no more painful than having my ear pierced, and just as quick. The chip was the size of a grain of rice and gave me a new way to control my phone, but if I'm honest, I underwent the procedure purely for journalistic reasons.

Yes, I'll do just about anything for a story.

As far as "upgrades" go, it was largely benign and trivial. But some entrepreneurs are looking into augmenting our brains so that we can develop superintelligence. The procedure will likely involve implanting technology into our brains, creating what's known as a brain-computer interface.

Man With Circuit Board Brain

A vintage illustration from 1949 shows that the notion of humans merging with machines has been around for some time.

Getty Images

Think of this as one of the more extreme reactions to the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics , which, depending on whom you ask, is either the best or worst thing to happen to humankind. Tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have issued gloom-and-doom warnings about the misuse of the technology. But some, including one startup from Musk himself, see an opportunity to use tech to boost human capabilities -- and potentially partner with AI.

"My biggest concern is we don't have the ability to cooperate," Bryan Johnson, whose company Kernel is developing brain augmentation tools, said in an interview at the Web Summit in Lisbon last month. "If we cooperate, we can solve problems. What I want is us to be in the game of solving problems."

A brain-computer interface could allow us to communicate not only with each other -- that's right, we're talking telepathy -- but also with computers. It could theoretically allow us to collaborate with artificial intelligence to solve the world's most complex problems.

In this sense, what Johnson's trying to do could be interpreted as a kind of contingency plan for humanity.

Noel Sharkey with 'eMo' the Robot

Professor Noel Sharkey

David Jones - PA Images/Getty

"I'd argue this is a necessity for the future and for our relevance," he said. The alternative is that humans won't be able to adapt in the same way computers will, and as a result we'll risk becoming irrelevant.

But not everyone believes superintelligence is something we should fear, or even something that's a realistic prospect. Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence and robotics and public engagement at the University of Sheffield, believes that machines with even human-level intelligence are still a far-off dream and that we should be focusing on getting the basics right.

"Looking at superintelligence for me is like when you're on the motorway looking so far out ahead that you crash into the car in front of you," he said in an interview this month.

That isn't stopping others from trying to give humans a leg up.

Not fiction, just science

Brain augmentation might sound like science fiction, but the technology is already a well-established field of neuroscience. There are noninvasive forms of tech like EEG, in which sensors use electrical signals to communicate with our brains, and cochlear implants that interface with auditory neurons to restore hearing. Brain-computer interfaces already play a crucial role in treating diseases such as Parkinson's, epilepsy and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease or motor neurone disease.

Electroencephalography (EEG) cap, 1999.

EEG technology was first developed in the late 1800s.

Science & Society Picture Library

Johnson is looking at how to use brain augmentation to enhance humanity, something the academic experts in this area don't see as surprising or even unrealistic.

Mikhail Lebedev from Duke University and Manuel Casanova from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, who received $100,000 as part of the Frontiers Spotlight Award to organize a conference on brain augmentation in Switzerland next year, both expect companies like Kernel to move beyond strictly medical uses and focus on brain enhancement.

Johnson established Kernel last year with $100 million from the proceeds of selling his first startup, Braintree, to eBay in 2013. Joining him in this quest to enhance the human brain is Musk, who publicly announced the launch of a new company called Neuralink in the second quarter of 2017.

Neuralink and Musk didn't respond to requests for comment, but Musk gave an interview about the ideas inspiring Neuralink to Wait But Why earlier this year.

These companies are keeping the technology they're trying to develop under wraps. All we know is what we can glean from their websites and the small amount their founders have said in public.

Bryan Johnson

Bryan Johnson on stage at Web Summit in Lisbon in November.

Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP/Getty Images

Johnson described in a purposefully vague way the company's goal of creating a set of tools for the brain, a bit like gene-editing tools in genomics, but he doesn't yet know of all the ways the technology might be used down the line. And he doesn't necessarily see this as a problem.

"Every time humans have been asked in the past to prognosticate the future, we get an 'F'," he said. "We always fail."

Johnson draws on metaphors like the Gutenberg printing press and electricity to point out that when humans create tools, they can't necessarily envisage how they'll be used. He notes that it tends to work out.

That said, he does advocate for safeguards -- humans don't have a track record of always being trustworthy and he wants to mitigate what he acknowledges is a chance things could go wrong. "Will we fuck this up, or could we fuck this up?" he said. "Yes, we certainly could. Do we fuck things up all the time? Yes, and so I think we're at risk."

Expanding your mind (without blowing it)

For some, there's an instinctive revulsion to the idea. "I'd rather live in a cave than have my brain augmented," Sharkey said.

So, big shocker -- public demand for this tech is underwhelming. A survey undertaken by Pew Research Center in 2016 showed that nearly seven in 10 Americans would be either very or somewhat worried about having a chip implanted in their brain that would increase their ability to concentrate. And 64 percent of respondents said they were "not too" or "not at all" enthusiastic about this potential technology.

Concerns about brain enhancement technology are not unfounded. In 2014, neurologist Phil Kennedy, who hacked his own brain, found himself briefly in a paralyzed "locked-in" state following surgery to implant electrodes in his head. Kennedy eventually recovered, but the procedure illustrated the risks involved.

There's the chance of infection, Lebedev said. He added there are parts of the brain that we still don't understand enough to tinker around with.

Add to this the fear of the unknown -- the risk that we enhance our brains to the point that we change ourselves in some irreparable and fundamental way -- and it's no wonder people aren't exactly clamoring for brain augmentation.

Human 2.0

How does Johnson react to those concerns?

"What is everybody so scared about losing? Do we not spend our life trying to correct ourselves?" he said. "I'm incredibly frustrated being human."

Philosophers have long questioned the definition of humanity and struggled with drawing the line between people and animals. But if Johnson's vision holds true and our brains are downloaded onto a chip, we may soon need to place a line between humans and machines.

I asked everyone I interviewed for this piece for their definition of humanity and got a range of answers that encompassed everything from family values to cultural identity to how we co-evolved with everything else on Earth to be inherently part of the planet.

Evolution of ManArtist: Karen Humpage

Some are starting to ask what comes next for humans.

Print Collector/Getty Images

Johnson has his own idea: "My definition of human is the fact that I can be anything," he said. And what he wants to be, as he describes it, seems to be, well, more than human. "I consider myself to be cognitively impaired because I am limited by my biases, by my blind spots. I don't want the limitations, I don't want those constraints, I want to break open."

But supposing we do manage to break open and work out how to sleep better, live longer, achieve peak happiness, pleasure and wellness, we could start to encounter what Lebedev describes as the "ethical risks" of brain augmentation. We don't want to become the rats that repeatedly press levers to stimulate the pleasure centers of their brains.

The risk, said Casanova, is that brain augmentation "may actually be sold as a panacea, which it is not."

The real doomsday scenario, according to Lebedev, is that as we start to merge with machines and machines start to take on or imitate human consciousness, that line between the two starts to blur.

"It is even possible that 'humanity' will evolve into a community of zombies," he said. "Luckily," he added, "this is not a problem as of yet."

As for me, until Johnson and Musk prove that brain augmentation can be done without any kind of physical, psychological or emotional damage, I will refrain from volunteering as tribute. Having a chip implanted in my hand to make a cool video is one thing, but I'm not ready to let a neurosurgeon at my brain with a scalpel -- not yet at least.

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