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Brain implants, dark conspiracies, and digital gods: How the Deus Ex video games help explain Elon Musk


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Sprawling tech corporations covertly influencing society through artificial intelligence. A lethal virus whose vaccine many individuals struggle to access, and violent secessionist militias who imagine it is a government bio-weapon. Strange people caught up in shadow conflicts between plutocrats, who manipulate governments as they pursue grandiose dreams of reworking humanity.

This isn’t an outline of our world in 2022 but of the world of Deus Ex, an acclaimed video game series that this week got an additional shout-out from the world’s richest human, Elon Musk.

The chief executive of Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX has often professed his love of the Deus Ex games, that are renowned for his or her cerebral writing, philosophical themes, and commitment to letting players select their very own path through the story.

On Monday, Musk revealed a latest level of fandom when he tweeted an image of what appeared to be a reproduction pistol from 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution in pride of place on his bedside table, alongside a commemorative American Revolutionary War handgun and 4 opened cans of caffeine-free Weight loss plan Coke. “There isn’t a excuse for my lack of coasters,” admitted the thrice-divorced tycoon.

Whether real or a prank, the photo inspired confusion, mockery and psychological evaluation the world over. Yet the parallels between Deus Ex’s themes and Musk’s own mental interests – from transhumanism through runaway capitalism to conspiracy theories – are so extensive as to warrant deeper evaluation.

What does Elon Musk’s admiration for Deus Ex tell us about his worldview? And on this dark vision of the long run, would he be a hero or a villain?

A minimum of certainly one of the series’ creators has strong answers to those questions.

“Musk plainly imagines he’s the JC Denton of this world – a plainspoken everyman, standing as much as the elite,” Deus Ex co-writer Austin Grossman tells The Independent, referring to the series’ trenchcoat-wearing protagonist. “As is clear to everyone, Musk is the one with power and he’s just pathologically incapable of honest introspection.

“I might say Musk is sort of a Deus Ex villain, except that the franchise doesn’t have any villains as whiny and self-servingly delusional as he’s shown himself to be.”

What even is Deus Ex?

When the primary Deus Ex hit game stores in June 2000 – sold on CD-ROMs inside big cardboard boxes, as was the style on the time – its effect was profound.

Set within the yr 2052, and taking its name from the traditional Latin phrase “deus ex machina”, meaning “god from the machine”, Deus Ex casts the player as a cybernetically-enhanced government agent attempting to unravel a conspiracy that involves Area 51, the Illuminati, and a wealthy industrialist who plans to turn out to be a digital deity by uploading himself to the guts of the web. Its title, as this author learned the hard way at age 11, isn’t pronounced “do sex”.

“Deus Ex takes place in a dark near-future world where a small variety of enormously wealthy individuals are deciding the fate of humanity,” Grossman, certainly one of the unique game’s three writers and now a novelist, explains to The Independent.

“The United Nations agent JC Denton” – aka, the player – “stumbles into the center of this and winds up being a pivotal figure: the only real honest, humble man in a nest of power-mad manipulators.”

Players have remarkable freedom to tackle problems as they wished, whether through combat, stealth, diplomacy, hacking, or exploiting the sport’s unusually detailed environment in unexpected ways. You can side with various ideologically distinct factions, change the plot by killing or saving major characters, and ultimately change the trail of human civilisation.

The story can also be startlingly erudite – sometimes to the purpose of dorkiness. “The have to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we are able to implement the identical functionality with data-mining algorithms,” a rogue AI tells you. “Corporations are so big, you do not even know who you are working for. That is terror,” says a terrorist leader together with your gun to his head.

You possibly can debate the company funding of think tanks with an Australian bartender, or the aim of taxation with an imprisoned insurgent. Other characters reference Thomas Aquinas and the US Declaration of Independence, while the sport’s three endings include quotes from Paradise Lost, Voltaire, and Kahlil Gibran.

The result was a critical and business smash, earning a everlasting place on “best ever” lists and galvanizing a generation of game developers. It spawned a direct sequel, Invisible War, and prequel series starting with Human Revolution, which focused on the societal impact of widespread cybernetic augmentation.

Musk’s bedside gun appears to be a reproduction of the Diamond Back revolver wielded by prequel protagonist Adam Jensen, who memorably sums up his feelings about becoming a cyborg super-soldier by growling: “I never asked for this.” Musk has name-checked the series repeatedly on Twitter, rating the unique amongst his “all-time” favourites and saying he’d wish to install it on Tesla’s in-car computer systems as a hidden extra.

Perhaps this affection goes no deeper than the undeniable fact that Musk is an unashamed nerd who enjoys video games. The Independent invited Musk to inform us about his love for Deus Ex in his own words, up to now without response.

But when his alternative of bedside ornament weren’t enough of an announcement, Musk cited the series explicitly when describing his work with Neuralink, a start-up he co-founded in 2016 to develop brain implants that might allow human beings to commune directly with computers.

Asked on Twitter in 2020 whether this might help deaf people to listen to, he said: “Yes. Could also extend range of hearing beyond normal frequencies and amplitudes. Deus Ex.”

And in March of that yr, as Covid-19 and government lockdowns swept the world over, Musk tweeted: “Appears like the plot of Deus Ex.”

Musk hopes to ‘achieve symbiosis with AI’

Probably the most obvious connection is Neuralink, which could easily have been the brainchild of Deus Ex’s pompous biotech mogul Bob Page or Human Revolution’s suave augmentation magnate David Sarif.

Unlike Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who can also be working on brain-computer interfaces, Musk doesn’t just see the technology as a option to control devices or help disabled people but as the beginning of a grand historic project to transcend the bounds of the human brain and body and stop our destruction by AI.

“Because the algorithms and the hardware improve, digital intelligence will exceed biological intelligence by a considerable margin. It’s obvious,” Musk told Axios in 2018. “We’re like children in a playground… we’re not being attentive.” Humans, he suggested, is perhaps to future AIs what monkeys and gorillas are to us.

He continued: “The long-term aspiration with Neuralink could be to attain a symbiosis with artificial intelligence… to attain a kind of democratization of intelligence, such that it isn’t monopolistically held in a purely digital form by governments and huge corporations.”

In the future, Musk hopes that these devices couldn’t only radically speed up human thought but allow human minds to be downloaded into robot bodies, linked together in digital telepathy, or restored from a backup after sudden death.

Musk has also had a hand in constructing AI itself. He has donated at the least $20 million to AI research, and was a founding member of OpenAI, a San-Francisco-based firm that has wowed the world with its text-generating and art-generating software. Its long-term mission is to make sure any future intelligence powerful enough to outperform humans at most jobs – often called a man-made general intelligence, or AGI – is “protected and helpful… to all humanity”.

This is precisely the sort of future Human Revolution explores. If human bodies and brains will be radically modified, who gets to manage that process? Who profits and who loses out? What happens to the individuals who refuse such augmentations, or who cannot afford to refuse them? Would an intelligent machine be able to independent morality, or could it only ever be a tool of its masters?

Likewise, all of the games are concerned by how AI and digital technology could allow elites to centralise power by monitoring and manipulating global communications. They ponder what might occur if the mega-rich were in a position to monopolise the gains of transhumanism – and even buy themselves immortality, as some tech barons are already attempting.

Musk himself has opposed that concept, mocking rival rocket builder Jeff Bezos for investing in a Silicon Valley “anti-aging” start-up – although he does plan to get a brain implant.

Such big-picture sci-fi questions are Musk’s stock in trade. He has argued for a universal basic income to mitigate the mass job losses that automation could produce. He desires to make humanity a “multi-planet species” so we are able to survive catastrophes equivalent to global warming. He’s fearful that advanced AI could create “incredibly effective propaganda”, influencing elections from behind the scenes.

Implicit in these fears is a give attention to technology as the motive force of social change. Musk is not trying to satisfy these challenges by rallying latest movements or electing latest politicians but by constructing latest to satisfy these challenges not through rallying movements or electing politicians but constructing latest machines. Similarly, Human Revolution presupposes that augmentation tech will transform society – while spending little time on other aspects equivalent to culture and economics.

A growing penchant for conspiracy theories

Musk’s tweet comparing Covid-19 to Deus Ex was not only a stray remark. In the sport, the “Gray Death” virus really is a government bio-weapon, created and exploited by power-hungry elites to be able to bring a few latest world order.

For weeks beforehand, Musk had been downplaying the chance of the virus, accusing world leaders of undue “panic” and predicting that there could be “zero latest cases” within the US by the tip of April.

He would later denounce lockdown measures as “fascist”, changing his Twitter avatar to a picture of JC Denton and declaring “FREE AMERICA NOW”. He promoted questionable and sometimes conspiratorial claims concerning the virus and its treatment, and earlier this week scrapped Twitter’s ban on Covid-19 misinformation.

To be clear, Musk has never indicated that he actually thinks Covid-19 is a globalist plot. But his response to the pandemic was an early sign of his increasing penchant for conspiracy theories, that are a central theme of those games.

“The unique Deus Ex had one core premise: ‘it would be super intense if every conspiracy was true,'” says Robert Yang, an independent game developer and scholar who has written extensively concerning the school of game design that inspired Deus Ex (often called immersive sims).

“What if the UN has a secret SWAT bunker under the Statue of Liberty? [That] originally might need felt like Nineteen Nineties hacker stoner slacker philosophy, but now smells like alt-right memelord paranoia.”

Like The X-Files, Deus Ex is a grab-bag of each conspiracy theory going: staged terrorist attacks, men in black, and even grey aliens (kind of). The Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and Majestic 12 are all real, and the US Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) really is planning to take over the country using a plan called REX-84. In Invisible War, each of the world’s strongest factions are secretly run by the identical shadowy group – as are a pair of rival coffee shop chains.

Even before the pandemic, Musk would often claim that negative rumours or news stories about Tesla were orchestrated by investors who had financially bet against the corporate, and even by the oil industry. In 2018 he suggested in an email to BuzzFeed that certainly one of his critics was a “child rapist”, giving no evidence.

He also had a playful interest in popular conspiracy theories, joking that aeroplane exhaust trails are “actually a message from time-travelling aliens” and tweeting (probably in jest) that “aliens built the pyramids, obv”.

Lately it is not so clear that he’s joking. He promoted groundless innuendo concerning the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s wife Paul. After taking on Twitter, he claimed that “far too many” of the social network’s “verified” blue checkmarks were “corrupt” or “bogus”, apparently believing that a big number were improperly acquired by bribing Twitter employees (not unimaginable, but he offered no evidence).

He now usually interacts on friendly terms with far right activists who traffic in hoax claims concerning the 2020 US election. Previously week he has begun complaining about “psyops”, or psychological operations – a term for covert government influence campaigns that’s levied promiscuously amongst more conspiracy-minded left- and right-wingers.

Because it happens, Deus Ex’s lead designer Warren Spector has said that he may not intend to make the sport today, admitting: “The conspiracy theories we wrote about are actually a part of the actual world. I don’t need to support that.”

Spector declined to comment on Musk’s views, telling The Independent through a spokesperson that he didn’t think it could be a “fruitful discussion”.

‘He’s like a Deus Ex villain, except whinier’

For Austin Grossman, Musk’s statements about Deus Ex betray a gross misunderstanding of its story – which he sees partially as a warning about letting people like Musk run the planet.

“It’s no surprise Elon Musk likes the Deus Ex franchise,” Grossman says. “I’ve met multiple billionaire, they usually’re all like Musk… they will’t look within the mirror of fiction and see anything that doesn’t flatter them.

“Tech-industry entrepreneurs like him love fictions that glamorise hacker heroes with guns, but their brains appear to shut off once they’ve assimilated that first tiny thimble-full of story.”

He compares it with the way in which businessmen equivalent to Zuckerberg are attempting to construct the “metaverse” depicted in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, apparently without realising how dark and dystopian it’s.

Indeed, when Musk made Denton his Twitter avatar in 2020, many fans avowed that he was actually more like series villain Bob Page – a star trillionaire whose face gets placed on magazines while he covertly climbs towards apotheosis via political corruption, genetic engineering, and control of the web.

Like Musk, Page is working towards a future which technology allows humans to merge with machines and turn out to be artificial gods. Like Neuralink, his plan would let him escape the bounds of the human body, becoming “a latest life-form, in all places and nowhere”.

Each men are keen on boasting and taunting their critics, in addition to making lofty pronouncements concerning the way forward for humanity. Musk says his mission is “to increase the sunshine of consciousness to the celebrities”, while Page says things like “let me bring infinite power to the human body!” and “soon I’ll turn out to be pure energy – I’ll burn just like the brightest star!”

To Grossman, Musk and Denton couldn’t be more different. He describes the primary game as inheriting its sense of morality from film noir, by which “people without power are doomed but have occasional moments of honest, dignity and kindness” while the rich are “vicious and empty and undeserving”.

Denton, against this, is a descendant of Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe: someone who “actually asks questions and is able to hearing the answers, and even being a bit shocked and saddened by them.”

In the identical spirit, Deus Ex’s three endings were never meant to feel satisfying but to make players uncomfortable, frightening them to ask questions on their very own biases and beliefs.

“Musk,” Grossman concludes, “obviously never did.”

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