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Jonathan Bartlett on Elon Musk’s myths of the mind

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Readers have probably heard of self-driving car entrepreneur Elon Musk. He’s now also promoting brain-computer interfaces via the Neuralink project. Jonathan Bartlett thinks his view of how the brain works is too simplistic:

Self-driving car entrepreneur Elon Musk sat down last week with popular podcast host Joe Rogan to talk about a variety of topics, including his new venture, Neuralink, announced last year. If you haven’t been following, Neuralink is a technology that aims to create an interface between the brain and a computer.

Musk proposes to embed electrodes within your brain so that signals could be sent and received. A similar technology is already being used in mice and a less invasive technology helps some blind or paralyzed people restore some functions. Neuralink is the first company to aim for something more general (however, its timeline to actual human implants is still up in the air).

What I found most interesting about the conversation, however, is not the technology itself but the (secular) mythology embedded in Musk’s lengthy descriptions of what he thinks his device can do…

Neuroscientists used to think that each neuron was as complex as a switch. But newer research shows that each neuron is more similar to a microprocessor. Musk’s 3,000 Neuralink electrodes controlled by a single processor does not remotely match your mind’s 80 billion processors, all linked together.

Jonathan Bartlett, “Elon Musk’s myths about the mind” at Mind Matters News

Here’s the Joe Rogan show:

Here are some ways the brain and mind are not like a computer:

If your brain were cut in half, would you still be one person? Yes, with minor disabilities. Roger Sperry’s split-brain research convinced him that the mind and free will are real

Yes, split brains are weird, but not the way you think. Scientists who dismiss consciousness and free will ignore the fact that the higher faculties of the mind cannot be split even by splitting the brain in half. (Michael Egnor)

Some people think and speak with only half a brain. A new study sheds light on how they do it.

We will never “solve” the brain. A science historian offers a look at some of the difficulties we face in understanding the brain.


Four researchers whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot, says Michael Egnor. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.

5 Replies to “Jonathan Bartlett on Elon Musk’s myths of the mind

  1. 1
    Belfast says:

    “ Neuroscientists used to think that each neuron was as complex as a switch. But newer research shows that each neuron is more similar to a microprocessor.’
    This is interesting.
    Prokaryotes have extensive switching, I assumed they were like logic gates in some ways, 0,1. Is this wrong?
    There is probably more than one source for your quote, could you give me a pointer, please?

  2. 2
    FourFaces says:

    The often repeated claim that “that each neuron is more similar to a microprocessor” is incorrect in my opinion. Neurons process spikes which are discrete electro-chemical signals that are normally generated by sensors when a minute change is detected. There are many types of neurons but most of them perform very simple tasks when they receive a spike. Most cerebellar neurons, for example, are just pass-through gates that allow spikes to go through unless they are being inhibited by other neurons. A multiprocessor is not needed for that.

    Neurons are indeed complex but it’s only because they are living cells that must do all sorts of complex bio-chemical operations just to stay alive, things that are irrelevant to their main spike-processing function.

  3. 3
    polistra says:

    I doubt that Musk actually believes any of these things. LIke Trump, Musk says all kinds of things to keep his opponents offguard and offbalance. His “beliefs” often switch back and forth within the same week or the same sentence. None of this output can be attributed to theories or beliefs. The only theory in minds like these is “I AM GOD. I WILL WIN EVERY SINGLE TIME, AND YOU WILL LOSE EVERY SINGLE TIME.”

  4. 4
    AaronS1978 says:

    Thanks 🙂

  5. 5
    Fasteddious says:

    An interesting concept, but one doubts that the brain-computer interface will work as well as he hopes. Yes there are some ways to monitor brain activity via implanted electrodes, but trying to send out a coherent thought to a set of electrodes is not really possible. Yes, some users can work out through practice how to get a cursor or a robotic arm to move left or right, but such interfaces are sluggish and imprecise as I understand them. Perhaps children, with more plastic brain cells, could learn to do a better job if the interface were stable and used all the time.
    The flip side of trying to send some information from the computer to the brain is even more fraught with questions. What do voltage pulses on a set of electrodes feel like subjectively to the mind? What level of testing and learning would be required just to get one byte of information transferred reliably into a brain in such a way that the mind can comprehend and use the information?
    Then there is the question of where to put the electrodes? Some degree of vision can be obtained in blind people by putting electrodes into the visual cortex. Similarly, some degree of muscle control can be achieved in people with damaged nerves by putting electrodes in parts of the motor cortex. But where does one put electrodes to pass quantitative data to the thinking mind?
    I can imagine that some sort of rudimentary computer-brain interface will become possible, but whether it will be useful, long-lasting, and widespread is another whole set of different questions.

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