Private thoughts may not be private for much longer, heralding a nightmarish world where political views, thoughts, stray obsessions and feelings could be interrogated and punished all thanks to advances in neurotechnology. Or at least that is what one of the world's leading brain scientists believes. In a new book, The Battle for Your Brain, Duke University bioscience professor Nita Farahany argues that such intrusions into the human mind by technology are so close that a public discussion is long overdue and lawmakers should immediately establish brain protections as it would for any other area of personal liberty. Advances in hacking and tracking thoughts, with Orwellian fears of mind control running just below the surface, is the subject of Farahany's scholarship alongside urgent calls for legislative guarantees to thought privacy, including freedoms from "cognitive fingerprinting", that lie within an area of ethics broadly termed "cognitive liberty". Certainly the field is advancing rapidly.
Employees may soon be forced to wear headsets that track thoughts and monitor productivity, engagement and even when staff want to complain to their boss. A mind-reading device known as an electroencephalogram (EEG) can be fitted to a person's scalp to track electrical signals produced by the brain. Some companies have started forcing workers to wear them and combining the readings with artificial intelligence to dissect their thoughts. Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University, gave a TedTalk on the topic and revealed she was concerned that this may cost people their jobs. The headsets are already being used to track alertness, productivity and mental states in China.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., on his bill that would give the Biden administration greater power to regulate the Chinese-owned company. Advances in neuroscience, engineering and artificial intelligence have brought us a world of greater brain transparency. With consumer brain wearables coming of age, we can now monitor brain activity as easily as we track heart rate, blood oxygen levels and steps taken in a day; which will revolutionize our relationship with technology and understanding of ourselves and each other. Consumer brain wearables can empower us to take charge of our mental health and wellbeing, but they also threaten our last bastion of freedom. Consumer brain wearables are devices with brain sensors embedded into everyday technology like ear buds, headphones and watches that can detect brain activity to give us insight into our own minds.
This is the case for plenty of treatments that are considered "noninvasive" because they act from outside the brain. But if we can reach into a person's mind, even without piercing the skull, how noninvasive is the technology really? It's a question I've been mulling over, partly because I've just started reading The Battle for Your Brain by Nita Farahany, a law and philosophy professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Farahany's research focuses on the ethical and legal challenges that new technologies might pose for society. In her book, Farahany covers the potential impacts of technologies that allow us to peek inside the minds of others.
It's becoming easier all the time to read signals from the human brain: Tesla founder Elon Musk's company Neuralink just this summer announced that human trials will move forward next year for an implantable device that can read a user's mind; scientists at UCSF recently released the results of a brain activity study, backed by Facebook, that shows it's possible to use brain-wave technology to decode speech; in 2018, Nissan unveiled Brain-to-Vehicle technology that would allow vehicles to interpret signals from the driver's brain; and Nielsen is already using neuroscience to capture nonconscious aspects of consumer decision-making. There will be good and bad outcomes. Recently, we've talked about how high tech can help the blind see and amputees feel by reading brain signals directly. A mind-controlled robotic "arm" can help sufferers from movement disorders with the tasks of daily living. One workplace use is to monitor drowsiness in, for example, the operators of high-speed trains.