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Watch What You’re Thinking…

Posted on 8th November 2009. 7 Comments

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Stevie Martin reads about a recent technological advancement and panics slightly.

“ …the images portrayed were actually showing the mind’s eye, or, to put it more frankly, the subjects’ private thoughts.”

minds-eye-296x300Forget the glaring headlines, it’s much more interesting to focus on the tiny paragraph-long mini stories found in the Times. Some are less illuminating than others (Man is enraged when Paper Maché Sculpture is Accidentally Destroyed by Landlord) but the other day, sandwiched between something about car theft, and knife crime (probably) there was a piece which definitely deserved a higher word count.

            Scientists have, according to a tantalizingly brief summary, discovered a way to translate brain activity into pictorial images. This may not seem at first particularly surprising or interesting, but the stub went on to describe how the images portrayed were actually showing the mind’s eye, or, to put it more frankly, our own private thoughts. On a screen. In front of Californian scientists. Rather than being excited by this scientific breakthrough, surely this is probably the most terrifying advancement since cloning. Which was also thought to be hugely exciting at the time. In fact, it still is.

            Now, at the moment the experiment has yet to be peer reviewed and is currently only at 50% accuracy, but when the test subjects were monitored as they watched a particular video, every second experiment produced a blurry replication of the film being watched. So, in other words, they’re getting there. And before long, they hope to use the technology (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging for anyone wishing to try it out themselves) in order to prosecute and/or acquit criminals… so, exactly like Minority Report then.

Without wishing to use a Tom Cruise film to make scientific predictions of experimental technology, does nobody remember what happened in Minority Report? It wasn’t great. And if FMRI does become 100% accurate, do we really want people knowing what we’re thinking? In pictures?

“Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this, but it feels dangerously close to brain-washing..”

With regards to criminology, it is easy to see the benefits- no innocentbrainwash people put behind bars and the guilty unable to evade punishment, but it won’t be limited to the law. In fact, FMRI technology is already being sold in Britain. To prisons? To psychiatric institutions? Nope. To advertisers wishing to see the effect certain brands have on their customers. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this, but it feels dangerously close to brain-washing when one lives in a world where advertising companies are using your own brain-activity to entice you to buy products. If it works, the result could very well be a population of slightly violated people with no money and twelve different types of car insurance. But on a more serious note, if it works, if FMRI becomes a staple of our future, then all it takes is for one sick individual with access to the technology to take advantage of it. One twisted moron who would find it funny to read the thoughts of people and use them to unethical ends. It seems bizarre to be even contemplating this sort of thing, but it’s no longer a far-fetched possibility relegated to high-budget science fiction films. It’s very real.

“One tip the wrong way and the repercussions will be unstoppable..”

designerbabies3It is reminiscent, perhaps, of the designer baby debate with regards to the fact that the intent is good, to ensure that the baby being born doesn’t suffer from life threatening diseases and to prevent the pain and suffering of not only the child but the parents, and yet there are severe ethical implications. The case of Joshua Fletcher, the two year old boy with the rare blood disease Diamond Blackfan Anaemia is a good example. The boy needed stem cells in order to stimulate his body to produce healthy blood cells, but unfortunately his parents were not the correct blood type. Therefore the solution was to create a brother with the cells needed to help Joshua, to create a designer baby. Scientifically and medically this doesn’t seem like a bad idea, but the emotional implications for this child, upon growing up and perhaps finding out his DNA was altered in order to help his brother, that he is different from others, that he was not naturally conceived could be incredibly damaging. And if babies are being created for this reason, when will they start wheedling out those with unattractive faces, birthmarks, moles, a sensitivity to developing acne during puberty?

It’s an example of a technology developed for beneficial aims, and yet it is hanging delicately in the ethical balance. One tip the wrong way and the repercussions will be unstoppable, and unimaginably terrifying. In essence, and with regards to the law, the ability to tap into the minds-eye is perhaps a useful tool, but it only takes one tiny shift in the wrong direction and suddenly Minority Report starts to look like a factual documentary. Without, perhaps, the group of  psychic people wearing spandex and lying in baths. Not only will we have to worry about knife crime, gun crime and drugs, but will thought crime be added to the list? At the moment this all sounds highly melodramatic, and perhaps it is, but at some point in the future, if you start bulk-buying toothpaste for no particular reason, I don’t want to say I told you so.

Stevie Martin


  • Jonny Arnold said:

    I have a few issues with the article. I’m going to write two :) :

    > What you described with advertisers using FMRI isn’t brain-washing, it’s brain-science! What they’re essentially doing is learning more about how the mind reacts to their brand. Unless they find some sort of bizarre colour scheme that puts you in a hypnotic state and makes you go and buy a box of chocolate bars, then they’re doing what they’ve done all the time – making a brand, and seeing what people think of it.

    > It’s unlikely to have policing power, surely? In the test, they showed them a movie, and they got a blurred version of the movie from the FMRI. This shows that anyone with an imagination could fabricate any series of events in their head and FMRI would show it! Just because we’re tapping into the brain doesn’t mean it’s truth – these people recalled a movie, so why wouldn’t criminals?

    In response to your final paragraph, yes you are being melodramatic. It’s a development that has no doubt excited many scientists, and rightly so – this sort of thing has been a goal of cognitive scientists for years, and I’m glad they have finally got to this stage…

    …maybe. After all, it’s still under peer review :)

  • Stevie said:

    Do you do a science degree? I hope so. If you are an English student then I’m going to top myself.

    That’s really interesting, I had no idea… I think I got overexcited by reading too much Orwell and watching too much Spielberg. But still it COULD happen, you never know!

  • Tom said:

    I can’t wait to see the addition of this spangly new technology to Jeremey Kyle’s repertoire. Think of the possibilities!

    ”And the lie detector results show that… yes, you DID sleep with all 7 men in two weeks, but wait! The D.N.A. results indicate that NONE OF THEM ARE THE FATHER! Just coming up on the big screen now are the FRMI images of you… throttling me? That can’t be right. You’re obviously scum… Get off my stage.”

    Other than that, the technology will never be infallible enough to provide a 100% definate answer so could not be used as evidence (just as with lie detectors).

  • Uncle Party said:

    What an exciting article!

    A baby that can read our minds! THROUGH the medium of advertising! This is the second most exciting thing that has happened to me all week (I won’t go into the first because it would just be bragging – although you could try reading my mind!!!!!).

    I think the chemist (Jonny Arnold – I’m assuming he’s a chemist) has misinterpreted the article: babies are not being forced to eat chocolate (through ‘bizarre colour schemes’). No! Babies are more susceptible to mind-control and so are being protected with special helmets (pictured above, perhaps below depending on how this is formatted). Surely this is obvious? I would not describe it as ‘brain-science’, but as brain-fun – because it’s fun (isn’t it?)!

    As for your second comment, I didn’t understand it (at all).

    I dread to think what you would see if you read MY mind! Dragons, most probably.

    Uncle Party

    P.S. If anyone would like to attend my 2012 Olympics Party, please post your address details and then I will post you an invitation through the post.

  • Stevie said:

    What do you mean my comment makes no sense. It makes perfect sense.

  • Uncle Party said:

    Is that a ‘yes’ for the party then?

    Uncle Party

    P.S. How can you “make” sense?

  • Vajayjay McGee said:

    what is going on here?

    Regards, Vajayjay M.