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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

For artificial intelligence to begin approximating human know-how, scientists will need to create models of how people think — such as simulations of your and my actual brain. That's when the trouble may begin.

The big picture: In this future — which could be plausible within decades — we will voluntarily upload these virtual versions of our brains onto platforms like Facebook or Elon Musk's aptly named Neuralink, which may conduct experiments on them. When they do, it will be only a little removed from fiddling with the real us.

Brain uploading, or whole-brain emulation, is one way to simulate intelligence. Although the science remains well out of reach today, Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering and an AI pioneer, argues it will be possible within decades.

One way brain simulations will be used is to better personalize commercial products and services. But in getting there, companies will raise numerous Frankenstein's monster scenarios of tinkering with people's very essence.

  • We risk a future "in which a handful of private companies own and monetize a map of our lives, ourselves, and how we think and feel at any given moment," said Meredith Whittaker, executive director of AI Now and a research scientist at New York University.
  • How about this freakish thought: By understanding your virtual brain, companies could advertise exactly what you want when you want it — perhaps useful, but incredibly intrusive.
  • "They could know us better than we know ourselves," Whittaker told the O’Reilly AI Conference in San Francisco last Thursday.

What's happening now: Even without a perfectly accurate copy of your brain, scientists are designing systems that try to imitate how humans make decisions. Basic behavior modeling is the bread and butter of social networks like Facebook, often used to improve advertising.

  • For now, the profiles Facebook creates from users’ browsing habits can be laughably off-base. But data taken directly from brains says a lot more about people than inferences from their likes and shares, powering much more accurate predictions.
  • Facebook is already building technology that would allow people to type with their thoughts.
  • Companies could be compelled to share this data with the government in certain cases, Whittaker said, or could build a business selling it to employers or health insurers.

Go deeper: How linking our brains to computers could change humanity

Go deeper

Biden plans to ask public to wear masks for first 100 days in office

Joe Biden. Photo: Mark Makela/Gettu Images

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris sat down with CNN on Thursday for their first joint interview since the election.

The big picture: In the hour-long segment, the twosome laid out plans for responding to the pandemic, jump-starting the economy and managing the transition of power, among other priorities.

The quick FCC fix that would get more students online

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the pandemic forces students out of school, broadband deployment programs aren't going to move fast enough to help families in immediate need of better internet access. But Democrats at the Federal Communications Commission say the incoming Biden administration could put a dent in that digital divide with one fast policy change.

State of play: An existing FCC program known as E-rate provides up to $4 billion for broadband at schools, but Republican FCC chairman Ajit Pai has resisted modifying the program during the pandemic to provide help connecting students at home.

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
35 mins ago - Politics & Policy

America's hidden depression

Biden introduces his pick for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, on Dec. 1. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President-elect Biden faces a fragile recovery that could easily fall apart, as the economy remains in worse shape than most people think.

Why it matters: There is a recovery happening. But it's helping some people immensely and others not at all. And it's that second part that poses a massive risk to the Biden-Harris administration's chance of success.