Virginia Heffernan is a writer and acclaimed cultural critic whose most recent book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, explores the deeply human aspects of digital culture. She recently sat down with Tim Urban, the writer behind the popular blog, Wait But Why, which features highly researched, hyper-longform prose on topics from procrastination to artificial intelligence, accompanied by quirky, everyman illustrations. Virginia and Tim discussed Elon Musk’s most recent venture, Neuralink, its impact on the tech landscape, and its potential to change how we interact with artificial intelligence forever.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Virginia: Your most recent post is this amazing explainer called Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future, which introduces the genuinely shocking idea that computers and brains might team up—and how this somehow starts with a jellyfish. Tell me about this piece. This is not clickbait by the way, I had to look back to remember the title.
Tim: I gave up a long time ago on catchy titles. One of the most popular Wait But Why posts is called the Fermi Paradox and I could have easily called that “13 Reasons We Haven’t Seen Aliens Yet.” It would have gotten more clicks on the first couple days. And it just would have looked so much worse. It has so much more dignity to be called the Fermi Paradox, it’s more of a piece of art that way. The quality of a good blog post warrants a high quality, artistic title, not clickbait.
Virginia: Not exactly what the web is known for, dignity and not being clickbait. So what impressed you about this [topic] and what the heck is Neuralink and what is the brain’s magical future?
Tim: So at some point, Elon Musk caught wind of the blog. And he reached out and asked if [I would] ever like to write about the industries that he’s [creating] and, if so, maybe I want to get on the phone with him sometime that week. This was a mind-blowing moment. That led to a long series of posts about what he was doing at the time, Space X and Tesla.
I also [wrote] a long post about how I think he thinks, which is, I think, the key to him in a lot of ways. The key to his success is his ability to ignore conventional wisdom, and to reason from first principles. Reason from the core facts that you know, that you observe, and go. Those posts went over really well with readers. They loved them. They were super long. We’re talking not two or three thousand words—those were 25,000. Longest one was 40,000 words.
“The key to his success is his ability to ignore conventional wisdom, and to reason from first principles. Reason from the core facts that you know, that you observe, and go.”
Virginia: That’s a book.
Tim: That would be a 150 page book. [And] I would never have started with something that long, but at that point, the posts had gotten progressively longer and I realized that the longer the posts, the more popular the posts.
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So, a year later and Elon’s chief of staff gets back in touch and says I’m starting this other company that has to do with brain [and] machine interfaces.
Virginia: He has a chief of staff?
Tim: Sam Teller [is] his right hand everything. Sam says, “You know if you’re interested in writing about [the new company], we’d love to give you all the access you had before. It could be really interesting.” And I said yeah. It’s a no-brainer. But, for me to write about it, it can’t just be a new Elon company, it has to also be something that if Elon weren’t involved the topic itself warrants a long blog post. Brain-machine interface is something I want to write about anyway.
So I went out and met with the founding team, Elon and seven others, extensively, multiple times. [At that point], there was not much on the internet about this and certainly not about the company itself. People didn’t even know the name yet.
Virginia: Traditionally, a reporter who has formed a very close relationship with his sources so he gets stories early gets exclusive and broad access. But his primary obligation is to the paper and to his readers. There are a lot of ethics involved in walking that line in journalism, and [the reporter] has to be allowed to be critical. Say a Wired reporter gets access to Apple, he has to be allowed to be critical before he takes the assignment. Because it’s the wild west still ethically in online reporting, how do you square the circle? I guess I have to ask: did you take any money from Elon Musk?
Tim: Fair question. No. Never taken a cent from Elon. And he has never offered a cent because from the very beginning it was clear that I was not writing for him. Our agreement has always been that I get total access to all these people, they tell me anything I ask. I write the post and let them read it beforehand only to see if there’s something either inaccurate or proprietary information that they do not want getting out.
They’ve never said “Can you make this look a little better? Can you not criticize this thing?” That’s just not the deal. Plus they want [it to be] accurate more than they care about it looking good. And the truth is, their stuff is awesome. It’s going to look good if it’s accurate. And likewise, the reason I make them look good is because they are awesome companies, the same reason I write about them.
If I was going to be really critical about Neuralink, I probably just wouldn’t have written about it. It’s not that fun for me to write about a company that I’m not that impressed with. It’s positive because I’m genuinely excited and in all three of posts about Neuralink, Space X, and Tesla, I have moments of criticism and they have not uttered a peep about it.
“We’re building something more intelligent than we are, that’s a concern. He believes that the solution to reduce existential risk is to be able to high bandwidth interface with AI.”
Virginia: So you already have these readers that are holding your feet to the fire to keep your Wait But Why authenticity. That also becomes this community ethics crowd, I think, to be sure you don’t cross that line. This is a trust game. It seems like you’ve been able to thread that needle partly because you’re so responsive to readers.
Tim: There’s never been an NDA or a contract of any kind. It’s just because there is this trust and I think that’s why we both like doing this. Like that’s why it’s nice for him to come to me and it’s awesome for me to work with them.
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Virginia: So what is Neuralink?
Tim: I spent 38,000 words writing about it so I’m going to have to give the very short version here.
Basically, there’s the what it is and the why it is. The “what” is the easier thing to understand. Right now they have the concept of brain-machine interfaces. You have cochlear implants in deaf people, which goes right into the part of their ear, the part of their hearing system that transforms sound waves into electrical impulses that the brain can understand. This is a machine that goes in and does that instead, because that’s usually the part that isn’t working in someone who’s hard of hearing.
Virginia: Gateway drug to brain-machine interface.
Tim: What [happens now] is electrodes are put in that will allow your motor cortex to be a remote control for a machine, or anything, just like it is for your current hand or your leg. For people who are paralyzed or [have] a limb amputated this is groundbreaking stuff; it’s very crude right now but this could be really great. Elon and Neuralink are jumping in to try to improve the tech. They are trying to come up with a way to get a Moore’s law thing going with the amount of neurons in your brain that can be recorded and stimulated, which means information out and in at the same time. Right now the limit is a few hundred neurons at one time, which is very low resolution, you can’t do much. It’s 100 billion neurons in the brain. If they can get that number from a few hundred to a million neurons, they could do an amazing amount of stuff. It could change the world in so many different ways.
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They need to come up with a technology that allows for brain-machine interfaces to improve in bandwidth and resolution much more rapidly than they’re improving right now. And to be able to get the interface implanted and maintenanced non-invasively. Because you’re not going to want to have skull opening surgery any time soon. There’s a huge technology mountain they need to figure out how to climb, [but] they think that this is going to sweep the world.
Now the final “what” is the whole brain interface, what I call the wizard hat, because it allows you to be a wizard. Basically every neuron in your brain is able to communicate in and out. [There are] all these amazing things that you can do. You can be hiking and you want to show your friend this gorgeous view and so your friend just tunes into your senses and suddenly she sees through your eyes and hears through your ears and feels the breeze on her arms the way you’re feeling it, because you have this brain machine interface that can take the sensory input that’s coming in and wirelessly send it through satellites to your friend’s input interface, which can go into the parts of her brain that experience senses.
“It’s much safer, even though it gives us all a lot more power. It’s like you don’t want one Superman on earth, but if you have a billion Supermen then everything is okay because they check and balance each other.”
Virginia: And what could go wrong?
Tim: A lot could go wrong, but there’s a lot that could go right too. This is a big, big industry.
The big idea is you can think with each other. Elon talks about compression of thoughts. I see a beautiful color, and I can say it’s kind of pinkish, [but] pinkish applies to thousands, millions of different variations of color. In my head I see one color, all I can say is the bucket that it’s in. I hand the bucket to you through language, “pinkish,” the bucket goes into your head, not the color that I saw, just the bucket, and now you have to imagine which of the million colors in that bucket is the one that I happen to see. I compress it into a low resolution thing and then your brain has to decompress it.
The “why” is harder to understand. It’s basically to reduce the existential risk associated with AI. Elon is very nervous about AI, and rightly so. Intelligence gives humans this God-like power over all animals just because we’re more intelligent. We’re building something more intelligent than we are, that’s a concern. He believes that the solution to reduce existential risk is to be able to high bandwidth interface with AI. He thinks that if we can think with AI, it allows AI to function as a third layer in our brain, where we could have AI that’s built for us. So we have human intelligence and then we have artificial intelligence, and they’re both us and so we become AI in a way.
That sounds kind of creepy but it makes sense if all of us are AI, there’s not really anyone that can get control over all the AI in the world, monopolize it, and maybe do bad things with it because they are contending with a millions and billions of people who have access to AI. It’s much safer in a weird way, even though it gives us all a lot more power. It’s like you don’t want one Superman on earth, but if you have a billion Supermen then everything is okay because they check and balance each other.