Gary Lupyan and Andy Clark in Aeon:
In a letter he wrote in 1884, Mark Twain lamented that ‘Telephones, telegraphs and words are too slow for this age; we must get something that is faster.’ We should (in the future) communicate, he said, ‘by thought only, and say in a couple of minutes what couldn’t be inflated into words in an hour and a-half.’
Fast-forward to 2020, and Elon Musk suggests in an interview that by using his ‘neural net’ technology – a lace-like mesh implanted in the brain – we ‘would, in principle [be] able to communicate very quickly, and with far more precision, ideas and language.’ When asked by his interviewer, Joe Rogan: ‘How many years, before you don’t have to talk?’ Musk responds: ‘If the development continues to accelerate, then maybe, like, five years – five to 10 years.’
Despite the very real progress the previous century brought for our understanding of both language and the brain, we are no closer to telepathy than we were in Twain’s time. The reason, we will argue, is that the telepathy we’ve been promised – the sort envisaged by Twain and Musk, and popularised in countless movies and TV shows – rests on a faulty premise.