People are concerned about tech tinkering with our minds

It’s not science fiction: Science can already eavesdrop on and influence our thoughts

an illustration of researchers examining a large brain

When asked about what they think of new technologies that look to interpret or alter what we’re thinking, the public often gets nervous. Most fear this tech may take away the privacy of their thoughts.

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Brain technology has the potential for doing both good and evil. As a result, many scientists argue that the public should have a say in shaping how it’s created and how it is used.

To understand what the public thinks about this technology, Science News asked its readers. They were given info about three main ethical issues in this area — fairness, privacy and their sense of self. Privacy, it turned out, concerns them most.

Many respondents were spooked by the idea of allowing others access to their brain’s inner workings. That was true whether the outsiders were companies, governments or health-care workers. Explained one: “My brain is the only place I know is truly my own.”

“My brain is the only place I know is truly my own.”

Technology may be able to even change your brain. For instance, it might nudge your brain to think or behave in certain ways. Readers found this especially worrisome. “Imagine walking into McDonald’s and suddenly you have an irresistible urge for a cheeseburger (or 10),” one reader wrote.

Is your craving due to real hunger? Or is it due to a tiny neural nudge just as you drove near the golden arches? “This is super dangerous,” says Rafael Yuste. He’s a neurobiologist who works at Columbia University in New York City. “The minute you start stimulating the brain, you are going to be changing people’s minds. And they will never know about it, because they will interpret it as ‘that’s me.’”

Several other readers raised the nightmarish idea that we could become zombies — controlled by others. 

Talking about these types of brain intrusions makes a lot of people think of sci-fi  scenarios. Perhaps memories might be wiped clean. That was the theme of the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or someone might implant ideas into another’s mind. That’s the idea behind the 2010 movie Inception. Some people might even be tricked into thinking a virtual world is the real thing. That’s what happened in the mind-bending1999 thriller The Matrix.

illustration of scientists on a ladder removing thought bubbles from a brain
The ability to nudge brain activity in certain directions raises ethical questions.Julia Yellow

Today’s tech cannot yet deliver any of those fantasies. Still, “the here and now is just as interesting,” says Timothy Brown. And, he adds, it’s potentially worrisome. Brown works at the University of Washington in Seattle. As a neuroethicist, he studies issues raised by science’s growing ability to understand the brain, to listen in on its workings and to influence how it works. And, Brown argues, “we don’t need The Matrix to get our dystopia.” (By dystopia, he means an imagined life in which government controls or some apocalyptic event leads to great human suffering or injustice.)

Today, codes of ethics and laws govern research and medical treatments. They also protect aspects of our privacy. But for now, there are no clear plans to handle the privacy invasions that future neurotech advances might bring. “We are all flying by the seat of our pants here,” says Yuste.

University researchers and scientists at companies such as IBM and Facebook have been discussing these questions among themselves. Large brain-research groups, including the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, also fund projects that are investigating privacy concerns. Some governments, including Chile’s, are starting to address concerns raised by neurotechnology.

For now, the few answers that exist are as varied as are the people asking the questions.

This project on ethics and science was supported by the Kavli Foundation.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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