Elon Musk, Keep the Hell Away From My Brain | Opinion

When Elon Musk speaks, people listen, even when it's not too clear if he has any idea what he's talking about. Musk's every word is scrutinized, and each of his ideas is heralded as a breakthrough in human discovery. For example: the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX announces that he believes reality is actually a simulation, and suddenly, the theory becomes mainstream. And when Musk reiterates his belief that the world's population is headed for collapse by 2050, the internet becomes littered with think-pieces proclaiming Musk's prophecy as scripture.

That's why we should all be concerned that Musk is asking for government approval to start hacking people's brains. You read that right. His company NeuraLink, which attempts to connect the human brain to a computer interface, has applied for permission to start testing the device on humans. The system has already been tested on a monkey.

But Musk isn't a prophet, nor is he a world-class philosopher; he's just a businessman—albeit a very successful one. And therein lies the problem. Musk is a self-built, tremendously successful individual. He founded PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla—three monumentally important companies. He is one of the richest men in the world. Does any of that have to do with his ability to predict shifts in global population? Of course not. Unfortunately, we're predisposed to think the opposite.

Elon Musk is a case study in the halo effect, a cognitive bias that influences how people perceive each other. Generally, individuals showing tremendous ability in one particular subject are often assumed to hold expertise in other areas as well. Ever wonder why people care what actors have to say about politics? The halo effect is the reason. As any rational person would point out, celebrity status does not confer political wisdom, but that doesn't stop people from paying attention to actors' politics.

Much in the same way, the SpaceX CEO, with his talk of space exploration and Mars colonization, has become something of an intellectual celebrity as of late. With Musk's growing fame has come a cadre of supporters who view his perspective as gospel. This shift has encouraged Musk to take increasingly strong positions on topics like philosophy, artificial intelligence, and—most recently—public policy.

In 2018, for example, Musk made waves during an interview on 60 Minutes when he proclaimed that he did not respect the SEC. Nor did he respect their decision to hold him accountable for tweets that could affect the stock price of his publicly-traded company, Tesla. Musk was subsequently brought up on charges of securities fraud and was even at risk of being held in contempt of court.

Do we really want to give an alleged law-breaker the keys to our brain?

None of the above, however, did much to damage Musk's reputation. His supporters rallied behind him, accepting the claims that he did nothing wrong, despite the clear evidence to the contrary. Musk isn't a lawyer, nor is he an expert in securities fraud, but to the general masses, those facts don't matter. Due to the halo effect, the public decried Musk's innocence and even jeered when Musk trolled the SEC over Twitter.

If Musk gets approval for NeuraLink trials on humans, think about what that would mean. This is the person who constructed a "mini-submarine" to help a group of boys trapped in Thailand's Tham Luang cave. Authorities politely informed Musk that the submarine would not be of use in the rescue mission, due to its obvious impracticality. The eccentric billionaire was so upset that his invention wouldn't be utilized, he took to Twitter to vent his frustrations, attacking the rescuer that criticized the sub as a "pedo guy." But this petulant behavior didn't rile his base of support, who took to praising Musk for having the "best of intentions" in the face of a difficult situation.

Most recently, Musk took a controversial stand against the Air Force, lawsuit and all, when it decided against selecting SpaceX to participate in Phase 1 of its Launch Service Agreement (LSA) program. The Air Force passed over SpaceX for the job in Phase 2 because, as compared to its competitors, Musk's company submitted an inadequate proposal.

Musk's company alleged that "by any reasonable measure, SpaceX earned a place in the LSA portfolio." From an outside observer's perspective, the implied objectivity of the statement makes for an odd claim. Neither Musk nor SpaceX is in a position to be calling the shots for America's defense programs. Not only does Musk hold a conflict of interest (he serves to benefit from SpaceX's selection,) he is also woefully under-informed on the topic.

And yet, despite objections from actual national security experts, coalitions have formed to shoehorn SpaceX back into the LSA program. Blinded by the halo effect, people have accepted wholesale Musk's talking points. His proponents argue that it is necessary to include SpaceX within the program, as excluding it would be absolutely unfair.

People would be wise to recognize that, just as theater training doesn't make an actor a public policy wonk, Musk's business acumen isn't a marker for blanket expertise. Musk is undoubtedly a superb businessman, but that doesn't mean that he is qualified to dictate SEC regulations, national security policy, or how our brains should connect to artificial intelligence. It's time to rein in this country's adoration of Elon Musk and leave the policy-making and brain-hacking to those qualified to handle it.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at The University of Tampa.