person entering maze of human brain

Bioethics Forum Essay

The Mind is Easy to Penetrate. The Brain, Not So Much

Dualists rejoice! That much-maligned ontology got a new lease on life recently with vividly contrasting cases involving Scarlett Johannsen’s voice and Elon Musk’s brain.

Well, not Musk’s brain but that of a patient volunteer in his Neuralink experiment, and not Johannsen’s voice but that of a strikingly similar vocal double. Yet the parallel mid-May dustups reveal something interesting about minds and brains: One is easy to penetrate, the other far more challenging.

When OpenAI released GPT-4o, its model for “more natural human-computer interaction” was named Sky. The feminine, warm, and (to some listeners) rather flirty voice struck many as remarkably similar to that of Johannsen as the audible representation of Samantha in the operating system in the 2013 film Her. (Spoiler alert: In the film a rather sad and lonely fellow, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with the disembodied AI, only to be traumatized upon discovering that Sky has been unfaithful, servicing many such users, so to speak.)  It happens that the participants in OpenAI’s demos were mostly young men, presumably not as emotionally involved as the lead character in Her but visibly charmed.

Enter Scarlett Johannsen, who at first expressed concern that Sky was “eerily similar” to her Samantha voice, pointing to an interesting intellectual property issue about what counts as similarity from one voice to another.  It turns out that OpenAI’s Sam Altman had approached Johannsen about voicing the new operating system. The circumstances added up to sufficient cause for suspicion for her to retain legal counsel. Had OpenAI trained its Sky algorithm on Samantha? Was Sky a deepfake? But Altman assured Johannsen that the company had hired a voice actor for the demo and had no intention of resembling her Samantha character. His company hit the delete button on Sky. The sides seem to have parted friends. One might say they remain on speaking terms.

Underneath all the hubbub is a key point: voices matter, metaphorically and literally. Facing death, Socrates said his inner voice told him when he was on the wrong course. Many of us strive our whole lives to be heard, to “find our voice.”  Through the goopy medium of amniotic fluid we bond to our mother’s voice. People with auditory hallucinations have trouble distinguishing those that are real from those that are not. When we’re not sure about the objectivity of an ominous sound, we reach for intersubjectivity: “Did you hear that?”

Now consider the overhyped brain implant experiment conducted by Elon Musk’s Neuralink on a person with quadriplegia, a blatantly conflicted case of science by press release. Following the first few post-op weeks, about 85% of the device’s threads had slipped away from their target sites in Noland Arbaugh’s brain, with further surgery determined to be inadvisable. Someday perhaps a more responsibly described study will succeed in providing people like Arbaugh with brain-linked rehab outside strict laboratory conditions. More likely that will be accomplished by one of the legitimate teams that pioneered such efforts long before late comer Neuralink.

Meanwhile we may reflect that the three-pound lump of jelly between our ears is vastly more difficult to manipulate than the airy stuff of mind said to distinguish zombies from the last of us.  

Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn SIlfen Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the Hastings Center.

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