Elon Musk, the world’s most restless entrepreneur, has embarked on yet another venture. Not satisfied with reusable rockets, electric cars, giant batteries, vacuum trains and underground roads, his latest firm, Neuralink, hopes one day to build a working brain-machine interface (BMI), which would let its user control computers simply by thinking. The idea is not new – scientists have been experimenting with BMIs in labs for years – but Musk’s involvement will sprinkle it with stardust.
As any entrepreneur will tell you, the first thing your product needs is a catchy name. “Brain-machine interface” is a bit clunky, so Musk has plumped instead for “neural lace”, which is short, memorable and glamorous. Science fiction fans will recognise it from the “Culture” novels of Iain M. Banks, a Scottish writer who died in 2013. In those novels, a neural lace is a BMI that is implanted when a person is young. It grows into and around their brain, acting like a souped-up WiFi connection that allows humans to communicate, and commune, with the ultra-advanced artificial intelligences that run the show.
This is not the first time Musk has raided Banks’s work for inspiration. SpaceX, the rocketry firm he founded in 2002, owns two ocean-going barges that serve as mobile landing pads for its rockets. One is called Just Read the Instructions, the other Of Course I Still Love You. Both are named after sentient spaceships in the “Culture” books, all of which have similarly playful names (one warship, which spends most of its time waiting idly to be called up for action, is called the Killing Time.) Musk is not the only “Culture” fan in Silicon Valley. In 2015 Mark Zuckerberg chose “The Player of Games”, the second “Culture” novel, for his fortnightly book club.
Perhaps the books are just light bedtime reading. But perhaps not, because they explore many of the themes that are worrying the tech world at the moment. The Culture is a society in which virtually everyone’s job has been taken by robots. Artificial intelligence (AI) vastly exceeds the organic sort. The spaceships and artificial worlds on which Culture citizens live are run by Minds, machines that are to humans what humans are to ants. (Those worlds are criss-crossed by high-speed trains that run in a vacuum, another technology that Musk is trying to develop.) Drones – machines with intelligence roughly equal to that of humans – are citizens just like their biological counterparts.
Musk, like many other people these days, spends a lot of time thinking about AI and where it might lead. In 2015 he helped found Open AI, a non-profit foundation that explores how best to ensure that AI ends up serving humans, rather than displacing them. Banks's novels, some of which are 30 years old, take the idea of machine intelligence just as seriously. Killing a machine is as grave a crime as killing a biological person; the relevant moral metric is the capacity for suffering, not the stuff of which a given intelligence is made. He gives his machine characters complicated inner lives just like those of his biological ones. In one scene in “Consider Phlebas”, the first Culture novel, a human mountain-climber brings a drone some flowers from a remote outcrop as a gift; the drone reflects on how touched it is by the gesture, and how it would die of shame if that sentimentality became widely known.
To self-doubting tech lords, the series is a reassuring tonic. The Culture is a utopia in which the promise of AI has been realised and its pitfalls avoided. The Minds are mostly benevolent gods who ensure that both humans and drones are as happy, safe and fulfilled as possible. Dignity is no longer tied up with work. Nor is survival, for his machine-run economy generates an almost inexhaustible material abundance (a group of modern left-wing economists have dubbed such a state of affairs “fully automated luxury communism”). With no need to work to survive, humans – who, thanks to advances in biology, can switch sex at will and live to be hundreds of years old – are free to do whatever they like, whether that is climb mountains, enjoy games, or just indulge in a great deal of drugged-up, sex-fuelled hedonism.
But Banks is too talented and cynical a writer to make his utopia perfect. Many of his protagonists are dissatisfied with an easy life, and find themselves on the fringes of the Culture’s perfect society. Liberated from work, the Culture has become obsessed instead with fashion, fads and the minutiae of social hierarchies. And AI gods, even benevolent ones, come with uncomfortable implications: Banks is teasingly unclear whether humans (and drones) are anything more than indulged pets for the Minds that really run the show.
Musk has voiced similar concerns. “We’ll be like a pet labrador if we’re lucky,” he said in 2015, when asked about the relationship humans might have with super-intelligent machines. Similar worries are the ultimate reason behind Neuralink. Only a technologically-augmented human brain, Musk thinks, stands any chance of being able to keep pace with the artificial sort, and Neuralink is the first step in building such a brain.
All of this may seem impossibly grandiose. Worries about hyper-intelligent computers keeping humans as pets can seem almost insultingly theoretical in a world where billions of people do not even have reliable electricity. But science fiction is a literature of ideas, and, as John Maynard Keynes once remarked, the world is ruled by little else. The “Culture” series is not a blueprint for the future of the human race. It is high-concept knockabout space opera, with all the technological handwaving (faster-than-light travel, mega-structures the size of planets) that implies. But it is space opera that anticipates some of the challenges that technology is beginning to pose in the real world, and which are of great interest to the sort of people who are building the future in which we will all soon have to live. If you want to understand the thinking of today’s tech titans, Banks’s novels are a good place to start.