Scientific progress and the presumed necessity of suffering

There’s a great moment in Michel Serres’s Statues in which – responding to the Challenger disaster – he describes spaceflight as a form of human sacrifice. He recognizes, as Elon Musk does about Mars, that when we head for the stars some of us aren’t coming home and aren’t making it to our objective either. People will die.

But Elon Musk’s brutal honesty doesn’t appear to stretch to his brain-computer interface, Neuralink. Of course, monkeys are dying, a fact that Musk may or may not mind. Despite the deaths (the number of which is disputed), Musk now claims that his company is on the verge of trying Neuralink out on a human being. Are we going to have some number of people die in that process also? Are we going to have people end up crippled by the research? Someone is likely in such need of help as to make themselves a sacrifice for the cause. But I don’t think that’s going to be one of Musk’s talking points.

This whole thing reminds me of how JBS Haldane, the great mathematical biologist and science popularizer, refused to conduct research on any animal that he wouldn’t conduct on himself (or, occasionally, one of his lab assistants). If you want to know more about Haldane (including his perspectives on animal subjects), you can read a great biography by Samanth Subramanian (grab it off Amazon here) or if you want to read about Haldane’s contributions to futurist speculation, you can see that in my book Futures of Artificial Intelligence.

Can you imagine Musk volunteering as a test subject for his new BCI?

Thanks DALL-E2 for this image – allegedly of a “brain computer interface” … alas, the content rules prohibited a picture of Mr. Musk getting a brain computer interface.

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