One day this technique could be used with paralysed patients and those ‘locked-in’ with brain damage.
A person’s mind is his or her castle. While the workings of a distant star or galaxy can be probed with precision, what goes on within the grey jelly that lies inside our skulls is – or has been until now – profoundly unknowable to the outside world.
But in the past few years, a series of fascinating and shocking experiments have started to breach those castle walls.
Far from being off-limits, our thoughts appear to be as open to being observed as any other function of our bodies. Last week, scientists in Utah announced they have been able to decode words from brain signals.
Using sensors attached to a volunteer’s brain, the scientists were able to record electrical signals generated when the person read out ten words, such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘hungry’ and so on.
After a while, the team was able to tell which brain signals correlated with a particular word. The implication is that, one day, this technique could be used with paralysed patients and those ‘locked-in’ with brain damage.
These people are currently able to communicate with their loved ones only with painful difficulty or sometimes not at all.
But a less optimistic future would see the abuse of this technology by those who wish to probe the secrets of a person’s mind without resorting to the messy imprecisions of torture or drugs.
Given that we already live in a society in which the spectre of Big Brother seems all too apparent, the idea that the authorities might one day have the right to read our minds is chilling.
If such technology ever became cheap enough to fall into the public’s hands, the grim possibilities are endless.
Employers, at least in the U.S., already routinely screen workers for alcohol or drug abuse. Many would jump at the chance to ‘mind screen’ for disloyalty as well.
Cheating husbands and wives already run the risk of being caught; if every home – or divorce lawyer’s office – had a mind-reading machine, then no one’s secrets would be safe.
The Utah experiment is just the latest in a series of studies involving ‘electronic telepathy’, where brain signals are either ‘read’ and decoded or used to control devices such as computer cursors.
For example, a couple of years ago, scientists used a brain- scanner to monitor brain activity when volunteers were shown images of everyday scenes. The scanner ‘learned’ how the brain reacted to thousands of images – what patterns were generated when the volunteer was looking at a picture.
The volunteer was then shown photographs and the ‘mind-reading system’ had to work out from the electrical activity detected what the subject was looking at. The machine was right 90 per cent of the time.
Again, these are early days. We are a long way from being able to read people’s thoughts or dreams as easily as we can understand their speech.
But a philosophical wall has been breached, and it is easy to see where this might lead.
For a start, if we can read the mind of another person, then this illustrates clearly that our thoughts are merely a series of complex electrochemical impulses. There is no mysterious ‘ghost’ in the machine, no ‘little man’ sitting inside our heads experiencing a mental life.
The workings of our brain simply are our thoughts. There is just body. The mind is no more separate from it than the twitching of our muscles or the beating of our hearts.
But the most profound implications of these mind-reading techniques may turn out to be rather more practical and legal, than philosophical.
Similar to mind-reading, a form of ‘electronic telekinesis’ called the ‘ braincomputer interface’ has been used to allow people locked-in by brain damage to operate a computer cursor by the power of thought.
In 1998, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, led by Professor Roy Bakay, installed a brain implant in a patient called Johnny Ray, who suffered from locked-in syndrome after suffering a brain-stem stroke.
He eventually learned to control a computer cursor purely by thinking.
Seven years later, a paralysed man called Matt Nagle was able to operate an artificial hand using the power of thought alone after a chip was implanted into his head. It ‘read’ his intention to move his hand and sent signals to the power the prosthesis.
Although these discoveries were pioneered by medics, the military must have been watching with interest.
A device that would allow soldiers or pilots to control, say, an aircraft or tank by the power of thought – and from a safe distance – would offer a huge advantage to any country that developed it.
The merging of organic mind with machinery probably promises greater advances than relying on artificial intelligence alone.
All this aside, however, there is a sinister side to any form of mind-reading. Already, our legal system seems to be drifting uncomfortably close to the notion of the ‘thought crime’.
People have been prosecuted, for example, not for blowing-up planes or abusing children, but for writing about, drawing pictures of or emailing friends about such crimes. That is not, many would argue, the same thing at all.
This is bad enough, but imagine what would happen if the police were to have mind-screening at their disposal.
If images of abuse or torture, or brain patterns suggestive of fanatical religiosity, or perverted sexuality could be revealed by a future mind-reading machine (and it may turn out that the minds of fanatical madmen are quite easy to spot), it would be incredibly tempting to simply lock the suspect away and throw away the key.
This is a superficially attractive, but deeply-flawed argument, one which was explored rather well in the 2002 movie Minority Report.
Perfectly law-abiding people think all sorts of things, not all of them wholesome and certainly not all of them legal.
But thoughts are not deeds, and once certain thoughts become illegal, then we have entered a hellish world.
Happily, this vision is some way away; the castle walls remain standing. Detecting, with some margin of error, which parts of the brain light up when certain words are spoken is not the same as creating a machine which can say ‘this man is a rapist’ – or even a potential rapist.
It will be many years before anyone will be able to glue electrodes to your head and ‘play’ your thoughts out onto a laptop screen. But the fact that such a development now seems not entirely outlandish should give us pause.
We must think seriously about where this technology is heading and make sure we do not let yet another blunt technological instrument fall into the hands of our law-makers.
Via Daily Mail