Iain M Banks “Culture” series explores many of the themes that the tech icon has been worrying about for some time now
Celebrity tech entrepreneur Elon Musk founded the neuroethology company Neuralink in 2016 with the hopes of building a working Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) someday soon. BMI would let its user control computers simply by thinking.
Musk needed a catchy name for this, because let's face it, 'Brain-Machine Interface' is somewhat of a clunky name. He opted for the name 'neural lace', which is shorter, memorable and obviously, more glamorous.
The term 'neural lace' will ring a bell among science fiction fans. Yes, the late science fiction author Iain M Banks used the name in his "Culture" book series. The series is based on a fictional civilization - the Culture, a utopian post-scarcity civilization or society of humanoids, aliens, and advanced artificial intelligences living across the Milky Way Galaxy.
It is actually a space opera with tensions between the Culture's humane, anarchist communism ideals and its need to intervene in the affairs of less enlightened and often less advanced civilizations being the main theme, according to "Utopias and Heterotopias: The 'Culture' of Iain M. Banks".
The series consists of ten novels published between 1987 to 2012.
In the series, a neural lace is a BMI which is implanted when a person is young and it grows into and around their brain. Neural lace, according to Economist, acts like a souped-up WiFi connection that allows humans to communicate, and commune, while the ultra-advanced artificial intelligences run the show.
Neural lace was not the first term Musk took from Banks' "Culture" though. Everybody will remember Musk's aerospace company SpaceX, which has two ocean-going barges that serve as mobile landing pads for its rockets.
Musk named them "Just Read the Instructions" and "Of Course I Still Love You" respectively in honuor of Sci-Fi legend, he tweeted back on January 23, 2015. According to Space, 'Just Read the Instructions' and 'Of Course I Still Love You' are two of the sentient, planet-sized Culture starships whichfirst appear in 'The Player of Games', one of Banks' Culture novels.
Musk is one of world's most prolific tech entrepreneurs and an astonishing figure in the tech-business world. His revolutionary inventions - Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Hyperloop, X.com (PayPal) e-payments, SolarCity - has impacted us all.
Some of these technologies were invented even before he was a teenager. He may well be called the '21st century's Thomas Edison,' but there is more to Musk than just the inventions we know of.
According to The Guardian, Musk had described himself as a "utopian anarchist" in 2018, which he claimed is best described by the late science fiction author Iain M Banks' "Culture" series.
"Culture" explores many of the themes that the tech world has been worrying for some time now.
According to Economist, The Culture is a society where every human virtually loses their jobs to robots.
The spaceships and artificial worlds on which Culture citizens live are run by Minds, and those worlds are crisscrossed by high-speed trains that run in a vacuum, another technology that Musk is actually trying to develop in his Hyperloop project.
According to Musk's predictions, cars will no longer have steering wheels in them, as autonomous travel takes over by 2037.
Musk spends a lot of time thinking about AI and what it might bring for the human race in the future. Just like Banks' "Culture," Musk has also claimed that AI will outperform humans in almost every task by 2040.
In an interview with Edge.org in 2014, Musk said, "The rise of something seriously dangerous (as a result of AI) happening is in a five-year time frame, or maximum ten years." He thus wanted to find a way for AI and humans to co-work and helped founding Open AI in 2015, which explores how to ensure that AI will ends up serving humans, rather than displacing them.
In Banks' "Culture," The Minds are the benevolent gods who ensure that both humans and drones are as happy, safe and fulfilled as possible. With no need to work for survival, humans are free to do whatever they like - switching gender at will and living to be hundreds of years old, climbing mountains, enjoying games, or just indulging in a great deal of drugged-up sex-fueled hedonism – which they eventually get dissatisfied with and find themselves on the edge of the Culture's perfect society.
Banks has been teasingly unclear in his "Culture" series whether humans are anything more than indulged pets for the Minds that actually run the society. Musk has raised similar concerns as well.
The Economist quoted him as saying "We'll be like a pet slave if we're lucky" in 2015. Musk fears it will be like summoning the demon if super intelligence robots self-actualize. Neuralink is the first step in building such a technologically-augmented human brain.
All this however seem theoretically impossible in a world where billions of people do not even have access to reliable electricity, let alone computer, internet and other advanced stuffs.
The Culture is not the ultimate destination of human race, as yet. But Banks' novels may be a good way to understand the future challenges the human race might have to face. Tech titans like Elon Musk being inspired by such novels is just a little push towards that exciting unknown future.