Science  /  Explainer

Tomorrow People

For the entire 20th century, it had felt like telepathy was just around the corner. Why is that especially true now?

In 2016, Elon Musk launched Neuralink with the aim of manufacturing an electronic implant in the brain that could link it directly to the computer network. Musk’s company was joining the race to build brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, which involved Meta, Google and a host of neurology start-ups funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Musk’s focus was, for a time, diverted by market-share and software problems with Tesla and by his well-publicised buyout of Twitter, but in May 2023, it was announced that Neuralink had received approval to proceed from controversial animal to in-human trials with brain implants. In early 2024, there was extensive coverage of the implantation of a chip into the brain of a quadriplegic patient, Noland Arbaugh, who, soon after the operation, could play chess and his favourite video game just by focusing his thoughts on moving a computer cursor.

Musk named the implant, which embeds 1,024 small electrodes into the brain to read its neural signals, Telepathy. At launch, he explained that Neuralink’s main aim was to create an interface to realise ‘consensual telepathy’. Seven years later, the press obligingly headlined the livestream of Arbaugh playing chess with his mind as actively ‘demonstrating telepathy’ (although the later paragraphs of the news stories all tended to severely qualify this claim).

Tech observers often note that many of Musk’s technological visions are indebted to his reading of science fiction, particularly when it comes to rocketry, satellites and the colonisation of Mars. These often follow fictional blueprints. His influences here are the post-1945 science-fiction works that extrapolated futures out of the military-industrial advances that had been accelerated by the war machine. The moniker ‘hard science fiction’ arose because this vein of the genre was rooted in the cold calculus of physics or engineering, and promoted as a serious scientific endeavour in itself by the legendary editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, John W Campbell, who championed such writers of hard science fiction as Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke.

Telepathy might initially seem a much softer, psychological proposition, tainted with a sense of the supernatural. Yet both Campbell and Clarke were lifelong advocates of the view that telepathy was highly probable, the scientific proof of its existence likely just around the corner. The promise of telepathy – soon to be achieved, not far off, only a few test subjects away – feels very familiar when reading Musk’s boosterish announcements on Neuralink’s latest breakthroughs. The promise that telepathy is just about to be realised is not confined to entrepreneurs and science-fiction writers alone. For more than a century, there have consistently been figures in the scientific establishment who have entertained similar hopes that telepathy would soon reach the threshold of proof, promising everything from opening a new evolutionary phase of human development to a new psychic front in the global arms race.