Recent research from The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) demonstrated how artificial intelligence (AI) software can ‘read’ a human’s mind via MRI scan and transform our thoughts into words with impressive accuracy.
It is one of many emergent technologies that decrypt human or animal brain waves. In the last decade, others have been tested in transforming brain waves into actionable outputs, such as text or images, or even physical actions like kicking a ball.
The main question arising is, how ethical it is to use these technologies to pry into the most private asset we all own — our minds? We’re crossing a line that may strip us of whatever shred of personal liberty we still have: the right to our own thoughts. And it seems that some countries already started doing that.
Are we stepping closer to a dystopic future where governments can identify potential crimes before they’re even committed? Should we draw a line on what we should never do with these technologies now — before it’s too late?
Before diving into the more philosophical questions, let’s start by overviewing today’s technology.
Reading Human and Animals’ Brains – Are We Really There?
Experiments in reading human and animal brain waves and translating them into pictures, text, videos, or robot movements have been relatively plentiful in the last ten years. Probably the most famous of them is Elon Musk’s Neuralink, the brain-computer that aims to allow people to remotely control devices using brain activity. However, experimentation is still underway, and the results are mainly speculative (other than highly controversial), so we’ll leave this for another day.
Other areas of research have achieved their initial goal with incredible results. In 2018, a lab from the University of Toronto Scarborough was able to extrapolate images of human faces by reading brain waves. Posed to help crime witnesses recognize potential perpetrators with a higher degree of certainty, this technology could be used to at least improve the precision of somewhat faulty facial recognition.
Another project aims to help people who have lost their ability to speak or write recover their ability to communicate with a brain-computer interface able to transform brain waves into typed words at a speed of 90 characters per minute and nearly 95% accuracy.
The latest experiments from this year leveraged the full power of AI to improve how neural signals are translated into actionable outputs.
Two prominent ones include transforming what animals see into videos by reading the cortex signals recorded by a probe and transforming human brain waves into words with amazing accuracy without a surgical implant.
We are not at the point where we can read human minds by pointing a magic, mind-reading gun at a target — the vast majority of these experiments require complex and invasive procedures to implant some device into the subject’s brain or, at the very least, to undergo long hours of specific training and medical imaging sessions to map their unique anatomical structure.
However, this didn’t stop some people from using them for… let’s say, less ethical purposes than helping stroke patients regain their ability to speak or move.
Let’s Use Mind Reading Technology to Spy on People!
If you guessed which government on this planet has already experimented with mind reading technology, then you probably guessed right.
According to the South China Morning Post, Chinese companies have already used brain decoder wearables in the form of headbands, hats, or helmets to read the emotions of factory workers and students. Helicopter parents in China can also monitor their children’s attention level thanks to headbands.
Although these devices are aimed at monitoring students’ attendance and attentiveness levels, or the emotions of factory workers. Whether the quality and accuracy of the results are high is up for debate — still, we are crossing a threshold towards mandatory invasions of thoughts.
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes (Who Controls the Controllers)?
If there’s something that recent history has taught us very well, it is that nothing is more precious (and more loosely handled) in this world than private information. Everyone from giant corporations to governments and even criminal and terrorist organizations is peeking into what is supposed to be private.
The very idea of being able to extract information from human minds is scary at best. It doesn’t matter if these techs could be used for apparently “good purposes” like helping law enforcement pinpoint a suspect or prevent crimes before they happen. We already know how easy it is to lose some or all of our liberties in the name of a “superior threat” like a terrorist menace or a worldwide disease. Rights we will never get back again.
We have no natural way to filter out what our mind is generating inside our skulls, and our thoughts should never be exposed to anyone outside ourselves.
It is no different from being forced to walk around naked — everyone has the right to a privacy shield.
Human dignity must be protected at all costs, and our privacy violations may occur more subtly than being imprisoned and mind-readed by the police.
While there are some steps towards recognizing the right to freedom of thought, as ever, the technology — fragmented across nations —- may move faster than local legislation can keep up.
The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council has already recognized the existence of “neuro-rights” to ensure human rights are protected in a “holistic, inclusive and action-oriented manner.” Non-governmental organizations such as the Neurorights Foundation are developing a framework to build an international consensus on what neurorights are and how they should be addressed.
Even more importantly, rights like the “freedom of thought and conscience” have already been established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) way before these technologies were even invented. It all comes down to applying them most sensibly and ethically today rather than tomorrow.
Final Thoughts (Offered Voluntarily)
Having our thoughts decoded is genuinely a fascinating idea whose applications are so endearing and futuristic that they could only be defined as “marvels of technology.” However, just like any powerful and revolutionizing technology, there’s a massive potential for mishandling if some rules are not set forward in the most precise way possible.
We are already experiencing the constant bleeding out of our rights in the name of “security”, and this is happening day after day. It’s easy to be tricked into believing we need this safety.
But as Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”