Tags: science | fiction | orwell

No More Science Fiction: Mind-Reading Is Here

Monday, 09 Dec 2013 02:36 PM

By James Hirsen

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Stanford Professor: We Can Now 'Eavesdrop on the Brain'

Recent concerns over privacy have primarily centered on surveillance, data mining, and digital profiles that are being conducted by the U.S. government and segments of the private sector.

However, a new kind of technology is steadily emerging, and it is one that may seriously jeopardize a privacy component considered to be self evident-the right to our own personal thoughts.

Science fiction films and television shows are replete with references to authoritarian dictatorships that have employed technology to ascertain the thinking processes and personal reflections of individuals within the populace.

Perhaps the definitive work that deals with the provocative subject, George Orwell's dystopian novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four," describes the presence of countless telescreens, which are devices that allow the government to determine whether individuals hold unspoken views that question the ruling party or stand in opposition to authorities.

Through the application of sophisticated surveillance techniques and psychological monitoring, the secret police in Orwell's novel meticulously observe the citizens of the fictional nation of Oceania, constantly on the lookout for potential perpetrators of "thought crimes." The goal of the ruling party is to eliminate members of society who pose a threat and/or are capable of challenging the underlying ideology and sole authority of those who hold power.

The act of entertaining these objectionable thoughts is described in the author's fictitious language of Newspeak as "crimethink." But in penning the cautionary tale, it would have been difficult even to have contemplated the kind of technological advances that are occurring today, particularly in the field of neuroscience.

According to a new study conducted by scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine, there has been a breakthrough in what researchers refer to as "brain decoding." In everyday parlance, we call this activity "mind reading."

Josef Parvizi, the director of Stanford's Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program, said, "We're now able to eavesdrop on the brain in real life."

Parvizi is the senior author of the study, and the findings are set to be published by Nature Communications.

Results of the study could lead to exemplary "mind reading" uses, including such positive applications as restoring to stroke victims the ability to communicate. However, human nature being what it is, one could conceivably come up with a number of scenarios in which the technique could be misused or fall into the hands of individuals with ill intentions. Under such circumstances, the consequences could, of course, be dire and may even usher in the kinds of occurrences outlined in Orwell's literary clarion call.

Researchers in this study used the intracranial recording method to enable scientists to monitor brain activity of participants. The brains of three volunteers were tapped into, so as to evaluate them for possible surgical treatment of their recurring, drug-resistant epileptic seizures.

The procedure required removal of a portion of a participant's skull and placement of packets of electrodes adjacent to the exposed brain surface, in order to pick up the electrical activity in the brain. The implanted electrodes monitored countless numbers of brain cells, and the data were sent to a computer.

Even though participants remained fastened to the monitoring equipment and were mostly confined to their hospital beds for as much as one week, they were still able to eat, drink, talk to friends and family, and watch television during the experimental period.

The Stanford study is the latest in a long line of research projects that have focused on the interpretation of human brain activities. Researchers the world over are using brain scans and other cutting edge procedures to decode data from the brain and decipher thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and dreams.

An article in the UK Economist titled "Mind-reading: The terrible truth," also contained the following subtitle: "Technology can now see what people are thinking. Be afraid."

The article characterizes the whole idea of technology being able to interpret thoughts as a "truly scary prospect."

In our new media world, one in which technological developments allow websites to track individual purchases, smart phones pinpoint one's geographic location, and miniature cameras and microphones record activities, the Orwellian question is, How long is it going to take for our personal thoughts to be routinely accessed?

James Hirsen, J.D., M.A., in media psychology, is a New York Times best-selling author, media analyst, and law professor. Visit Newsmax TV Hollywood. Read more reports from James Hirsen — Click Here Now.

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