Mind reading and brain computer interface technology: the future is coming, fast

It's a common theme in dystopian fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. Robert Silverberg's "Tower of Glass," Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake," Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" and many other stories pose a question we seem to be obsessed with answering: what would happen if we could read one another's minds? What would happen if we could control one another's minds?

For better or for worse, recent research developments are shifting the discussion from the imaginary world of science fiction firmly into the scientific realm. The military is quietly bankrolling much of the research, a lot of which is happening at IBM. Says Defense Intelligence Agency scientist Sujeeta Bhatt:

For the intelligence community, what we're interested in are going to be devices that you can use remotely...We can create a fantastic map of deception in fMRI, but what we use for national security has to be something that we can train anyone to use fairly easily, that's fairly portable, and not outrageously expensive.

Watch this "60 Minutes" report to get a sense of where mind reading technology stood in 2009, and how quickly researchers think it will develop.

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Brain-computer interface technology

Reading minds is one thing; controlling them from afar is quite another. Scientists are also developing computer chips that can be implanted in the brain, enabling all sorts of useful treatments for conditions ranging from paralysis to blindness. The science is called "brain computer interface," or BCI. 

The implanting of computer chips into people's brains sounds like conspiracy theory or dystopia, but it is a very practical, real science. Who is interested in developing it can tell us a lot about why we should be concerned.

Wired's Chloe Diggins and Clint Arizmendi write:

Current BCI work ranges from researchers compiling and interfacing neural data such as in the Human Conectome Project to work by scientists hardening the human brain against rubber hose cryptanalysis to technologists connecting the brain to robotic systems. While these groups are streamlining the BCI for either security or humanitarian purposes, the reality is that misapplication of such research and technology has significant implications for the future of warfare.
 
Where BCIs can provide opportunities for injured or disabled soldiers to remain on active duty post-injury, enable paralyzed individuals to use their brain to type, or allow amputees to feel using bionic limbs, they can also be exploited if hacked. BCIs can be used to manipulate … or kill.

We urgently need to have a robust, public conversation about legal limits on the deployments of these kinds of technologies. Our elected representatives still haven't dealt with simple reforms to outdated communications privacy law, which remains stuck in the big hair era. We need to act fast to catch up to the present, so we can grapple with technologies like brain computer interface. We can't wait until these tools are commonly deployed before we set legal boundaries for their use -- particularly where they are deployed by state security agencies or law enforcement.

Recent technological developments underscore the urgency. Researchers at Brown University in early 2013 "succeeded in creating the first wireless, implantable, rechargeable, long-term brain-computer interface." It seems increasingly likely that  the human ability to wirelessly control or monitor brains from afar will become a practical concern within the next few decades. 

That means in the not too distant future, government agents may be remotely controlled by computers at Langley -- a step beyond the drug-fueled control mechanisms depicted in the latest Bourne movie. It also means that leg bracelets worn by ex-offenders may someday soon be cast aside in favor of using brain chips to monitor not just their location, but potentially also their behavior. 

Unsurprisingly, much of the research and development money for BCI science comes from DARPA, the US military's blue sky research arm. Read all about their work to read and control minds here, here and hereRead more about the science and the risks herehere and here.

Below is a long talk on mind reading technology, delivered on April 26th, 2012 at Stanford Law School, hosted by the Center for Law and the Biosciences and the Stanford Interdisciplinary Group on Neuroscience and Society. The talk features UC Berkeley's Dr. Jack Gallant, whose work attempts "to formulate models that describe how the brain encodes visual information, and that accurately predict how the brain responds during natural vision."

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