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Some Silicon Valley leaders are owning up to the potential dangers of their technologies

Billionaire Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., listens during the StartmeupHK Venture Forum in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016.
Justin Chin | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Billionaire Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., listens during the StartmeupHK Venture Forum in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016.

Neuroscientists have been quick to challenge recent statements from Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook executive Regina Dugan about their plans for brain-scanning research as unrealistic and far-fetched.

Yet sweeping promises of transformative technologies and overly aggressive timelines that are short on details are nothing new for Silicon Valley. (If they weren't, we'd all have a flying, self-driving car in the garage already.)

What is new about these efforts are the relatively pessimistic — some might say realistic —assumptions behind them.

Unlike the usual, unbridled optimism about technology changing the world for the better, both Dugan and Musk have suggested that mind-reading systems may be needed to help humans counter the ill effects of other technologies their industry is busy building.

In other words — the human race may need telepathy to help it survive the dystopian future that Silicon Valley itself is helping to create.

Musk, for example, said the rationale behind his company Neuralink is to allow humans to communicate without words via incredibly small implants.

Humans who can communicate as fast as a computer — via electrodes implanted in their skulls — will, in Musk's view, have a better chance of surviving a future dominated by super-intelligent machines than humans without such enhancement.

"That's the aspiration, to avoid artificial intelligence becoming [the] other," Musk said in a tweet.

Dugan, for her part, was circumspect about the effects that social networks such as Facebook have wrought on society — during a keynote speech to hundreds of Facebook developers.

While technology "has allowed us to connect to people a world away," she said, "it's come at the cost of connecting with those closest to us," she said to the company's F8 conference.

"We'd all be better off if we looked up [from our keyboards and smartphones] more often," Dugan said.

The comments echo those made this year by other tech executives, including Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba.

In 30 years, corporate CEO jobs could be filled with robots, as artificial intelligence inflicts pain on humans, Ma has said.

All this self-reflection is new to the industry, and could provide some small comfort to those who worry about the impact of technology on society.

And that development — unlike the far-off brain-to-text interface that Dugan and Musk previewed — could affect all users of technology sooner rather than later.