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How Elon Musk’s Neuralink could end up hurting average Americans

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and chairman of SolarCity, attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 8, 2015 in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and chairman of SolarCity, attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 8, 2015 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

On Tuesday, Elon Musk made it official. The man with a plan to put people on Mars also wants to fuse humans with technology in a very literal way. Musk's new company, Neuralink, will develop something called a "neural lace," which Musk has described as a digital layer above the brain's cortex, implanted via a yet-to-be-determined medical procedure.

Since our phones have long been fused to our hands, it's only logical that the next step is implanting technology directly into our brain.

Musk's heart is in the right place. He believes that unless humans are enhanced with machine intelligence, we will hopelessly fall behind in the future, becoming second-class citizens and mere tools to serve our robot overlords.

But one question Musk hasn't answered (and in fairness, it may not be his responsibility to answer) is who will have the privilege of getting a neural lace?

The failure of Republicans to repeal Obamacare isn't the end of the debate on whether basic health care is a fundamental right. In the last two weeks, multiple Republicans made it clear they believe maternity care is not an essential benefit. If the essentialness of maternity care is up for debate, it goes without saying Elon Musk's neural lace probably won't be covered under your insurance plan.

In other words, not only do the rich seem to get richer—they may get the benefit of having a computer-enhanced brain.

What will income inequality look like if only the very wealthy get an upgrade? And will children be able to get a neural lace?

"In a world that's growing increasingly class conscious, the ability for a relatively small number of people to become more than human could be a disaster for everyone—especially if that technology arrives in a time when income inequality is even worse than it is today."

It's one thing to justify why some adults might be able to afford a neural lace and others can't. Politically, that would just be another version of the never-ending debate about why some people are better off than others.

But the greatest effect on income inequality will happen when poor, working-class, and middle-class kids have to compete with their wealthy, digitally enhanced peers.

Growing up, I was one of the poorest kids in town. After my dad broke his back, my family spent time on food stamps and welfare. All the kids I grew up with came from a family who never ate government cheese or spent time living in a tent.

But thanks to social media, almost 20 years after I graduated high school I can look at the people I grew up with—people who had enormous advantages over me, just by the family they were born into—and see through hard work and a lot of education, I evened the playing field.

Despite all the advantages wealth provides, it's still possible—though, as income inequality researcher Dr. Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Stanford have shown, increasingly difficult—for kids from poor families to transcend the economic circumstances of their childhood. That remote possibility may disappear altogether when those kids have to compete with children who receive a neural lace for their 10th birthday.

Income inequality and the growing decline in upward mobility have weakened the American Dream, but it's hard to see how that idea survives at all in a society divided by digitally enhanced "Haves" and merely human "Have-nots."

As the parent of a 17-year-old, I am well aware how much pressure parents feel to give their child an edge in life, and there's nothing wrong with helping your kids get ahead. And if giving your child a neural lace increased their chances of having a successful life, most parents would do it.

But research has shown there is already a digital divide contributing to chronic poverty in low-income and rural communities. That digital divide will only grow when some of us can afford a brain enhanced with artificial intelligence.

Elon Musk may or may not succeed in his quest to create the neural lace, but eventually someone will—and unless elective life-changing surgical procedures become drastically less expensive, most of us are going to have to compete with computer-enhanced peers in an already unequal world.

We need to do more to level the current playing field, because something like the neural lace is inevitable. In a world that's growing increasingly class conscious, the ability for a relatively small number of people to become more than human could be a disaster for everyone—especially if that technology arrives in a time when income inequality is even worse than it is today.

That's why we need to move income inequality from a campaign year sound bite to a primary focus of government policy at every level.

And that needs to happen before the wealthiest among us can pay Elon Musk to give themselves and their children a digital upgrade.

Commentary by Dustin McKissen, the founder and CEO of McKissen + Company, a strategy, marketing, and public relations firm based in St. Charles, Missouri. The firm does consulting work analyzing how politics effects the business climate for clients in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. He was named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" in 2015 and 2016. He holds a Bachelors degree in Public Policy, and a Masters degree in Public Administration and is currently pursuing a PhD in Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @DMcKissen.

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