Nicholas Pell
Dec 28, 2011

Mind-reading technologies become reality with bioinformatics advances

Saying an innovation seems like science fiction is pretty much a cliché in 2012. However, it’s hard not to invoke the term when speaking about mind-reading technologies. Along with time travel, mind-reading technology is one of the last remaining frontiers of science fiction technology that hasn’t crossed the barrier into the real world. Unlike time travel, however, science is making steady advances into the realm of mind-reading technology. As with any emerging tech, this presents incredible possibilities along with new ethical quandaries.


New Advances In Mind-Reading Technology


Before you start worrying too much -- scientists can’t “read your mind” in the sense it’s normally thought of. In fact, you might be surprised to hear that you’re likely already using a mind-reading technology of a sort every day. The recent UCLA study on mind-reading tech has been compared to Google’s predictive algorithm. It’s not so much that scientists are ready to hook people up to a glorified MRI and reveal their innermost thoughts. Rather, scientists are able to predict what people will think before they think it based on past behavior.


More striking is the recent Japanese research that allows scientists to show visual images from your brain while dreaming. While dream reading might appear more frivolous, it has some practical real-world applications. Psychiatrists, in particular, would love to get accurate representations of people’s dreams. The technology even makes it possible to record a subject’s dreams to play back later. This allows therapists to get a very intimate look at a subject’s dreams for analysis, a key component of classic psychoanalysis.


Big Blue’s Prediction


IBM predicts that in five years, cell phones will have mind-reading technology. They also said the same thing five years ago. This time, however, they might well be right. “Bioinformatics,” as mind-reading tech is known, still won’t have the potentially Orwellian applications one might think; this emerging technology will primarily have consumer applications, like allowing you to move a cursor without touching a track pad. The days of a true mind-reading machine that can literally read your inner most thoughts and show them to other people is still in the realm of (presumably dystopian) science fiction.


Ethical Considerations


Still, if the last 20 years have taught us anything, it’s that there’s very little computer engineers and cognitive scientists can’t do when they put their minds to it. Consider mind-reading technology to be a fait accompli, even if it’s 10 or 20 or even 50 years away. The technology presents ethical conundrums the likes of which mankind hasn’t seen since Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project created the first atomic bomb.


There are two intertwined ethical concerns that make up the crux of the matter: First, the inability of any scientific way to actually verify what a person is thinking, coupled with the necessary imperfection of any technology. Second, privacy concerns. The first brings to mind not only the world of George Orwell’s 1984, but also the oeuvre of Philip K. Dick. Among more concrete questions posed: Will some people be able to trick or hack the technology? What safeguards will be in place to prevent malfunction and both mechanical and human error? Finally, regarding privacy, the idea that the domain of one’s mind and conscience are sacrosanct is a cornerstone of western liberal democracy. The idea implicitly underpins concepts such as freedom of religion. How would such a device impact fundamental human rights in liberal democracies, to say nothing of regimes far less concerned with human rights?


Preparing For The Mother of All Technologies


Mind-reading technology is in its infancy. However, many people reading this will live to see it reach full maturity. Due to the special ethical considerations involved, it is important for the world to begin wrestling with these ethical questions sooner rather than later. Nothing should imply that mind-reading tech is some kind of horrible secret mankind is not meant to know. It is, however, an ethically thorny issue. Working out the specifics is precisely the role of ethicists, so that we may maximize the benefits of such technology and minimize the potential downfalls.