Competition for Clubhouse as Twitter rolls out Spaces

Live conversation apps have got traction thanks to buy-in from people such as Elon Musk

Clubhouse has featured discussions such as a nine-hour one about Elon Musk’s brain-computer technology Neuralink, hosted by a club called Early Adopters – Startups. Photograph: Neuralink via New York Times

Spaces, Twitter’s live audio conversation offering, is officially here. Following months of testing with a small user base this feature is ready to presumably take on Clubhouse, which has the cachet of being invite-only, iOS-only and hosting chats with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

Has Spaces got what it takes to gain traction? Maybe, but it will have to overcome two obstacles. Firstly, Twitter has slapped on a minimum follower count of 600. This might help keep out spam and troll accounts but there are plenty of individuals and organisations who will miss out on hosting a moderated talk for now.

Secondly, you’d never know Spaces actually existed unless you were already a user of Twitter’s other daring new(ish) feature, Fleets. Yes, that’s the row of icons above your timeline that you almost never use. Once inside Fleets, swipe to choose Spaces. It’s almost like they don’t want anyone to use it, which is strange considering how reportedly keen Twitter was to buy Clubhouse.

I’ve popped into a couple of live chats on both Spaces and Clubhouse over the last few months and they don’t seem that different. However, Twitter is getting ready to monetise its offering: a select group of users will soon have the ability to ticket their events and put a cap on the number of attendees. Perhaps those celebs who have tapped into the podcast market during the pandemic will see this as a new revenue stream.


Meanwhile, in Clubhouse – despite the invite-only hurdle – there is a more egalitarian feel. I tuned into a nine-hour discussion of Musk’s brain-computer technology, hosted by a club called Early Adopters – Startups. The organisers posed the question: if Neuralink was available now, would you use it?

One might assume this chat would be packed to the gills with Musk fans but it was surprisingly balanced, raising issues of ethics and security as well as speculating on medical applications. There were even questions from individuals who clearly hoped Neuralink could help with mood disorders as well as neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s.

Quite a few speakers made it clear that they would not be willing to have such an experimental device implanted in their brain. And rightly so. Musk held a product update event last August and there was no product, no date for consumer availability nor a timeline for clinical trials. Not much has changed.

Not much, that is, aside from last week’s departure of Neuralink president and co-founder Max Hodak. Tweeting about leaving the company, Hodak said he hadn’t been working there for some weeks but offered no explanation.

Macaque monkey

Hodak’s departure would have coincided with Neuralink’s release of a video of Pager, the macaque monkey, playing Pong with his mind. If this is their technology at work, it is truly amazing (this video is the only evidence that has been offered to date). Unlike previous research in the area, Pager doesn’t have wires trailing from his skull but rather a concealed brain implant that has “paired” with his neural activity to allow him to navigate onscreen simply by thinking about it. Imagine the implications for those with paralysis.

The next step, naturally, is Neuralink for human use. Musk believes we will be lining up for these devices like we would the latest smartphone. Neuralink’s mechanical engineer Robin Young has said she sees it being used to treat all sorts of ailments from insomnia and depression to removing fear from the equation if you wanted to indulge in some rock climbing.

Aside from issues related to the invasiveness of a brain implant, the legal, ethical and social implications are head spinning. Could someone on trial for murder claim Neuralink was responsible if it had been calibrated to remove fear? A futuristic version of the Twinkie defence?

Ethically speaking, we’re creating a world of haves and have-nots if those who can afford Neuralink benefit from the cognitive advantages, while everyone else falls behind. These arguments have been used for any kind of human enhancement in general: when it is corrective – eye glasses – it brings the individual up to a normal standard but when it is for enhancement – when athletes use steroids – it gives the individual an unfair advantage.

But we are talking about a whole new level of enhancement when such technologies not only affect your brain state but are controlled by a smartphone app that facilitates the processing and storage of neural data by a private company. These devices and their data could also be hacked.

Suffice to say my answer to the question was no, I would not use Neuralink if it was available. I’m content to have my personal data processed and tracked the old-fashioned way.