Australia and DARPA’s Quest for Mind Control

When Elon Musk recently came out as a signatory of an open letter put out by the Future of Life Institute calling for “a pause” in Giant AI experiments it came not long after the FDA rejected his latest request to begin testing on human subjects for his brain-computer interface (BCI) at Neuralink. The reasons for the FDA rejection included concerns about migrating wires that can damage the brain; risky lithium batteries; and device overheating.

Neuralink has, in the past, faced charges of “animal cruelty” for killing 1500 animals in its testing labs, and no doubt this played on the minds of FDA regulators. So, Musk’s giant quest to go beyond BCI to, in the near future, virtual telepathy is on pause. It may be that the only way for Neuralink to catch up with competitors is to slow them down.

The Aussie Stentrode: The Mind as a SIM Card

But perhaps nobody can easily catch up with Synchron, the Melbourne, Australian-based (with a branch in Brooklyn) company which has gone on to be a top leader in mind-controlling technology, after a successful human trial with endovascular entry into the brain to slide what they call a “stentrode” that picks up “data” from the brain that is then able to communicate instructions to a computer by means of thoughts-only. Synchron hopes to sell the device as a leading-edge means to enable individuals with various forms of paralysis, including stroke, spinal cord injuries, motor neurone disease, and even blindness.

The Military, Government and Corporate Investors

But the Australian-based company has had a major advantage over competitors from the start.  $10m of seed money came from the Pentagon’s DARPA, and the Australian government kicked in millions more for the non-invasive stentrode, which is seen as crucial to the success of the highly advanced BCI project developed out of the University of Melbourne, and making Synchron able to crow on their website that their product was “radically outpacing traditional BCI.”

Synchron has been backed by not only DARPA, the US military’s primary research and development agency, but also by heavy hitters in capital, including Khosla Ventures, primary financial backer of wunderkind Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, out of which came the controversial ChatGPT. And more recently, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have become financial supporters of Synchron’s BCI after its successes in Australia and its subsequent introduction of its non-intrusive technology in the US. This could be a worry, as both Amazon and Microsoft share personal information with the US intelligence community.

The Indian-born Vinod Khosla is a firebrand with his venture irons in a lot of bright fires. Oft-described as a “risk junkie,” Khosla’s vision conjures up solutions to these rhetorical questions:

Large change happens, but is not credible until after the fact. Could you imagine a computer in every home in 1985, let alone hundreds of them? Grandma using email in 1990? The internet in 1995? Pervasive mobile phones in 2000? The ‘there is an app for that’ phone without a keyboard with millions of apps in 2005? Political manipulation in 2010 with social media? AI in 2015?

He helps fund projects like car-free cities, ‘superhuman customer support voice assistants powered by AI,’ Mach 5 commercial jets, limitless clean fusion, synthetic meat, and many other dazzlers.

He is seemingly in symbiotic relationships with Tom Oxley, CEO of Synchron, who can see with Khosla ‘pushed’ empathetic experiences from, say, a brain NYC to a brain in Tokyo, and with Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, who has benign totalitarian plans for the world, as he openly expressed in a 2019 interview with Khosla. Altman says,

I think it will be the most significant technological transformation in human history. I think it will eclipse the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, the Internet revolution all put together.

Khosla, Oxley, and Altman represent a fearsome triumvirate and it isn’t difficult to discern how their avowed good intentions for the world could go catastrophically wrong.

The DARPA origins of Mind Control

While the humanitarian aims of Synchron, and other BCI tech companies, are impressive and admirable, on a sales pitch level, where promises are made to consumers who will eventually determine if the product will be successful in the marketplace or not, we all know that promises cannot always be lived up to.  For instance, one major product developed out of a (D)ARPA is the Internet. First developed in the 70s as a response to the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite, it was meant to be a means of global resource sharing.

As Wikipedia describes it, “It is a network of networks that consists of private, public, academic, business, and government networks of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies.”

The resource sharing came to full fruition when Cern Scientist Tim Berners-Lee developed what we refer to as the World Wide Web, which quickly began deteriorating the resource-richness of the Web when commercial interests polluted its streams. Berners-Lee is actively advertising the Intern as a failure and advocate for a rebuild.

Today, the gifted Internet has been quietly repo-ed by the Department of Defense, who openly regard it as “a battlefield” that needs nation-state guarding, and on which it pursues daily cyberwarfare with its enemies — primarily the Russians and Chinese. In the repo process the DoD has decided to gather up everyone’s data, too. And uses social media as collectors of personal data as well.

It so happens that DARPA was the main developer of BCI. The program started out as Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) in 2018. Its purpose was to enhance the likelihood of battlefield success utilizing BCI weapons. As DARPA puts it, “These wearable interfaces could ultimately enable diverse national security applications such as control of active cyber defense systems and swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles, or teaming with computer systems to multitask during complex missions.”

Improved warfare outcomes is corroborated in an IEEE Spectrum piece that tells the reader:

By simply popping on a helmet or headset, soldiers could conceivably command control centers without touching a keyboard; fly drones intuitively with a thought; even feel intrusions into a secure network. While the tech sounds futuristic, DARPA wants to get it done in four years.

That could mean this futuristic equipment is being tried out in the drone-laden skies of Ukraine right now.

In a piece in LiveScience, “The Government Is Serious About Creating Mind-Controlled Weapons,” we read that DARPA is even developing a technique that would allow N3 developers to “use the system to transmit images from’ the visual cortex of one person to that of another.”  Recently, in a New Scientist piece by Carissa Wong, “AI creates pictures of what people are seeing by analyzing brain scans,” gave a hint at how this could work, and its what Freud referred to as Uncanny:

Viewers looked at the images above and an AI saw them as the images below. Early days.

In addition, DARPA’s Al Emondi, the N3 program manager, tells us that the Agency is:

preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone. By creating a more accessible brain-machine interface that doesn’t require surgery to use, DARPA could deliver tools that allow mission commanders to remain meaningfully involved in dynamic operations that unfold at rapid speed.

Synchron is essentially developing just such a non-invasive system that meets the military’s needs, while also providing some of the benefits it advertises. In this scenario, Synchron is actually an extension of the military.

These relationships between the military, war corporates and more benign-seeming applications, such as stentrodes, are the tricky kinds of capitalist collisions the President Dwight Eisenhower warned his fellow Americans about in his final television address to the nation. Beware the complex interweaving of the “Military-Industrial Complex,” or what we refer to as the Deep State today. DDE feared it could lead to tyranny.

The quest for BCI and mind control is picking up; it is not only the US military looking for an edge. Other agencies and private companies are working energetically to find this bizarre Holy Grail of telepathy and mental manipulation. A Scientific American article a few years back, “Mind Reading and Mind Control Technologies Are Coming,”  lays out the bleak terrain, and offers up the sage advice that makes it sensible for a call to a Pause: We need to figure out the ethical implications before they arrive.

Well, it’s here and how will we respond.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.