from the born-every-minute dept
Last week the press was jam packed with headlines discussing how Elon Musk and his Neuralink co-founder Max Hodak would soon “have the technology to build a real life Jurassic Park.” From the New York Post to The Hill, outlets quickly parroted the claim that Neuralink might soon get into the reanimated dinosaur business, triggering not only waves of Jeff-Goldblum-themed ridicule on social media, but a lot of free advertising for Elon Musk and Neuralink.
Except none of that’s actually happening. For one thing, the original tweet by Hodak doesn’t even mention Neuralink by name:
we could probably build jurassic park if we wanted to. wouldn?t be genetically authentic dinosaurs but ????. maybe 15 years of breeding + engineering to get super exotic novel species
— Max Hodak (@max_hodak) April 4, 2021
Hodak appears to have been speaking generally, not specifically, and there’s zero evidence the company is even pursuing the concept. Nor is it clear that Hodak is actually correct in his statement that such a venture is technically possible:
“…it’s pretty much impossible to resurrect a dinosaur. The science of bringing dinosaurs back from the dead isn’t really as sound as Hodak makes it seem though. Even humanity would have a tough time building a Jurassic Park in the next 15 years. First, we’d need some DNA from the prehistoric tyrants. Unlike in the film Jurassic Park, where the DNA is retrieved from mosquitoes in amber and fused with frog DNA, that information has completely degraded over the millions of years it has spent in the ground.”
To be clear, Musk has done, and is doing, plenty of interesting, innovative things. Just Space X/Starlink alone are impressive achievements that are delivering genuine innovation. At the same time, Musk and friends have a growing history of over-hyping products that either don’t exist, or don’t deliver what was promised by marketing. Like his Boring Company’s Las Vegas Loop, a project built on $50 million in taxpayer dollars that was supposed to revolutionize mass transit. Yet during a media event last week was shown to be just a boring, one-way tunnel filled with non-automated Tesla vehicles moving at 35 MPH:
“Whatever happened to those 16-person vehicles? When Musk first announced the Loop, it genuinely looked like an exciting new transportation system. Musk promised that each vehicle could fit over a dozen people inside and everything was autonomous. But it doesn?t look like much of anything is automatic anymore. You even have to tell your human driver where you want to go.”
Many outlets couldn’t be bothered to even mention any of this, instead offering gushing, unskeptical stories that called the undercooked tunnel a “thrill ride”:
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 9, 2021
Last week Neuralink also made an ocean of headlines after posting a video showing a monkey playing Pong with a brain implant. Press outlets went to great lengths claiming this new pong-playing psychic monkey would soon be “revolutionizing healthcare.” Only a few outlets could be bothered to mention that nothing Neuralink is doing has been peer reviewed, FDA approved human trials appear nowhere on the horizon, there’s notable safety and adoption issues that could derail such efforts, or that most of what Neuralink was hyping isn’t particularly new:
“It’s really cool and looks really impressive. But so does the below video, which shows an implant being used by a human to control a robotic arm. Notably, this video dates from 2012. The actual work was probably done earlier, and there were undoubtedly trials in monkeys well before this.”
Meanwhile, actual experts and neuroethicists quietly doubted Neuralink can get remotely close to the kind of technology the company and Musk have promised anytime soon. But such voices in unskeptical, hyper-enthusiastic news coverage weren’t particularly well represented.
That’s not to say that Neuralink’s experiments don’t hold potential, or that it’s not damn impressive to see scientists transmitting data from 1,000 electrodes implanted in a monkey over a Bluetooth link. But at the same time, a lot of what Musk promises simply never materializes (like full and safe Tesla self driving), and news outlets aren’t particularly great at presenting Musk and friends’ latest claims with a grain or two of salt, or seeding stories with the essential context of a growing pattern of empty or over-inflated promises.
Many journalists and readers alike can’t seem to hold conflicting ideas in their heads simultaneously when it comes to Musk. The reality is that Musk is both an innovative tech pioneer and an egomaniacal grifter who routinely says dumb and untrue things:
“It turns out it?s all true. The cars are impressive and their flaws get covered up. Musk is a lying ignorant grifter and he has inspired innovation in the electric car industry. Understanding that these seemingly contradictory things can be true simultaneously is important, because societies who cannot hold these two ideas at the same time may end up following scam artists and false prophets off the cliff and into the abyss.”
There are countless researchers and scientists laboring under harsh halogen lighting at the edge of breakthrough tech and scientific innovation, who see little public attention. Their slow, steady progress generally isn’t of interest to the ad-based media model. Such a model often isn’t keen on explaining the deeper nuances of innovation with actual experts, because that simply doesn’t make as much money as slack-jawed hype. Combine our ad-based media dysfunction with the generalized fanboy treatment of Musk as some kind of hybrid between Tony Stark and a god, and the net result is compounded hype untethered from reality.