Saturday, the 20th of July

Talking points

Japan's worst mass murder in decades. PHOTO: AP
  1. A shocking arson attack killed 33 at a Kyoto animation studio
  2. The Congo ebola crisis was labelled a global health emergency
  3. Monsoon rains displaced millions on the Indian subcontinent
  4. Italian fascisti (somehow) got their hands on an air-to-air missile
  5. A vote upended Boris Johnson's plan to prorogue parliament
  6. South East Asian meth producers passed $60b in turnover
  7. A U.S. naval vessel in the Persian Gulf downed an Iranian drone
  8. 'El Chapo' was handed a life sentence in New York
  9. Daphne Caruana Galizia's murderers were charged in Malta
  10. Snow cannons were proposed as a solution to save Antarctic ice-sheets

Deep Dive

This is device can stitch electrodes into your brain. PHOTO: Neuralink

On Tuesday, vaunted tech visionary Elon Musk revealed that his latest venture, Neuralink, aims to implant electrodes into your brain. Yes, our era's Howard Hughes has set his sights on creating a Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) to help us compete with AI, and in doing so he is yet again collapsing the distance between a philosophical thought experiment, and reality. 

A hole in your head  

Until Tuesday few people outside of Neuralink Corp. knew what the neuroscience start-up was developing. The secretive project had been described in the same sort of buzzy cyber-punk terms that all of Musk's projects seem to attract. What had been known was the amount of money being tipped into the project; roughly $150m, of which two-thirds apparently came from Musk himself. Now we know why: to stick a microchip and thousands of electrodes into your brain in order to record and stimulate brain function.

At first blush, this does not seem like a novel idea. The first BMI (named BrainGate) is by now nearly two decades old. It allowed a paralysed person to control a computer cursor with their thoughts. There are also numerous universities and start-ups working on similar ideas. They fall into two broad categories: invasive (where microchip and electrodes are directly attached to the brain) or non-invasive (where electrodes are attached to the outside of the skull). Neuralink falls in the first group, and in its announcement this week the company claimed to have successfully tested its technology on both rats and primates.

What's novel about Neuralink is its finesse. According to Musk, the best current U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved BMI is a Parkinson's deep-brain stimulator that uses 10 electrodes to selectively create 'spikes' of neural activity. By comparison, Neuralink's microchips are connected to 96 polymer 'threads', each containing 32 minuscule electrodes. That provides 3072 points of interface between the brain and machine. The technology is also paired with a nightmare-inspiring surgical robot (pictured above) that will be used to create a 2mm incision in the brain and sew the thinner-than-hair 'threads' into one's grey matter. Once reading and recording of spikes in brain activity commences, the Neuralink BMI aims to allow people with quadriplegia to connect to and control electronic devices.

But, of course, even this potentially life-changing technology for people with conditions like Parkinson's, epilepsy, quadriplegia and blindness is not nearly ambitious enough for Mr. Musk.

Going along for the ride

"This will be a slow process where we’ll gradually increase the issues that we solve, until ultimately we can do a full brain-machine interface. Meaning that we can ultimately – yeah this is going to sound pretty weird but – achieve a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence."

It's difficult to not share some of Musk's excitement when he is given the opportunity to speak at length about his ideas. According to him, Neuralink is the first step to insuring humanity against the "civilisation-level" threat of a self-aware AI.

Like many sermonists his depiction of the future is one of dark machinations and menace: Musk likes to describe it as a super-AI treating humans the same way that we treat ants. In this future, the best-case scenario would be getting left behind, unless – and here's the sell – you buy Musk's product, fund his project, approve his regulatory submission, or scrap some piece of pesky legislation. The Neuralink BMI will allow humans to ride on the shoulders of undiscovered giants. By merging with AI we will become infinitely more capable and perhaps even live beyond the natural limits of our physiology. Yes, we are firmly in science fiction territory now, a universe inhabited by Musk ever since he picked up his first Isaac Asimov novel as a child.

As society contends with increasingly complex issues, we desperately need futurists like Musk to push the envelope of imagination, creativity, and possibility. But as for this particular idea, it remains to be seen whether it will become another SpaceX (industry powerhouse), Tesla (money sink) or Boring Company (expensive hole in the ground).

In any case, we hope the Neuralink BMI will prove to be hardier than the SpaceX Falcon 9, and harder to hack than the Tesla Model 3.


Buzz Aldrin and the insatiable human desire to stick flags in things. PHOTO: Neil Armstrong / Nasa

One giant leap 

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. The first time humans leapt into the void of space and landed on something that wasn't our own planet. A titanic moment in history; one that fundamentally reshaped the scientific, technological, cultural and political era. And if you haven't seen it since high school, we'd encourage you to take a quiet moment with the original footage. It is grainy, surreal and utterly brilliant. A lasting testament to the technical genius and bravery that went into putting humans on the Moon.

Yes, there is an immense amount of information that you could soak up during this time of reflection, but don't over-do it. Sometimes the best thing for it is just to sit and stare at these extraordinary photographs of our pockmarked satellite and the pale blue dot that it orbits.

This special anniversary comes as the Moon is enjoying a real flush of attention, and not just from the old space-race foes. A Chinese rover is zooming around its dark side, Israel has just crashed a rocket into the side of it, and India is about to reschedule an attempt to put its own lander on the Lunar surface. Meanwhile, Nasa (home of the original moonwalkers) is planning a permanent Moon base as a way-point to colonise Mars.

Even more excitingly, people seem to have finally stopped singing songs about it. 
The bottlenose wedgefish is on the brink of extinction. PHOTO: Peter Kyne

Our specious notions of species

This week the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released its annual Red List of Threatened Species. Where an earlier study estimated (key word) that one million species were endangered, the Red List knows exactly how many species are endangered. In a world of mathematical modelling and projections, the IUCN actually counts – quite rigorously – what is left in the wild. This year a total of 105,732 animal and plant species are under audit (an year-on-year increase of roughly 7,000). This comprises just 1% of the total living creatures on Earth but it doesn't diminish the dire results: nearly a third of them are threatened.

With all these species – like the Scimitar-horned Oryx, Vancouver Island Marmot or Javan Rhinoceros – we ought to take stock of what we're losing. And that, despite the numbers you've read above, is more difficult than it seems. So, while everyone else is out there trying to build a taxonomy of flora and fauna, a group of evolutionary biologists has proposed scrapping the notion of species entirely. Why? Well, forget what your science teacher taught you, it appears that there is no hard and fast rule for what a species actually is. At present there are 27 competing definitions for what constitutes a species, many of which could not be more dissimilar from others. And tools for gauging interbreeding and genetic ancestry fail to paint a clear picture of which species a creature might belong to.

But, regardless of whether or not this is the right moment in history for evolutionary biologists to start shedding their paradigmatic definitions, animals and plants continue to die off in staggering numbers. That's because we allow ourselves to be fooled into reading facetious equations (a la the uranium mine or the tiger habitat; the rural community or the endangered caribou). And it behooves all of us to change that.

The Best of Times

Keep on sipping. PHOTO: The Atlantic

There is no link between coffee and cancer

We repeat: there is no link between coffee and cancer.

Acceptable ocean pollution 

50 years ago a young British boy travelling to Australia by ocean-liner flung a message in a bottle overboard some 1,000k off the coast of Fremantle (no, it wasn't Sting). This week it was finally found on a beach in South Australia and even got a reply. 

The Worst of Times

Teasing out a new form of extraordinary rendition. PHOTO: AFP / Getty

Send her back

This week U.S. president Donald Trump used a rally in South Carolina to double-down on his attack on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The consummate showman couldn't help but grin as his gathered South Carolinian audience bayed, "send her back, send her back". It's obviously not legal to repatriate an American citizen to their country of birth, in Omar's case Somalia, but that's of no import to this crowd. Trump's supporters cannot abide a brown-skinned Muslim woman who doesn't know her place.

In related news

The commentators grappling with soaring race-hatred in America would do well to retrace Eric Garner's death. Five years after a New York Police Department officer with a history of racial abuse choked an African American man to death on a sidewalk – ignoring his last words, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" – the Justice Department declined to seek federal charges. Reflect on why that might be.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"[Area 51] is an open training range for the US Air Force, and we would discourage anyone from trying to come into the area where we train American armed forces. The US Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets."

– The United States Air Force is not impressed by a Facebook page encouraging millions of people to storm Area 51 "to look at aliens". Whereas, we're not impressed by the fact they are hiding aliens from us.

 Headline of the week

Police chief warns that flushing drugs could be creating 'meth-gators'

The New Zealand Herald

Special mention

A real-world Disney hero: Abigail Disney. The documentary film-maker and heiress has turned her critical eye on the family firm: her secret visit to California Disneyland revealed the miserable lives of its lowest-paid workers. 

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: New Zealand was robbed.

Tom Wharton