We usually consider our thoughts to be our most private activity, but what if someone actually could read our minds?
Would we insist upon our spouse submitting to “mind reading” as a lie detector test? If we suspected one of our kids of breaking the window, would we take him down to the local mind reader to find out for sure if he was innocent?
What about that salesman who promised so much when we bought that lemon of a used car? Maybe we could prove that he lied to us and get our money back – or better yet, sue for fraud and get even more money from the dealer! Or, maybe employers wouldn’t have to struggle through so many of awkward interviews and then finally just guess at who would be the best person for that one remaining job.
Or, maybe the government could use our own thoughts as evidence against us (wouldn’t that be self-incrimination?). Those lengthy and expensive and inconvenient trials-by-juries-of-peers might become unnecessary if the police could just read suspects’ minds as they asked a few questions. Or, maybe the government could find out who the terrorists are and where they’re hiding.
Would it surprise you to learn that in India, in 2008, a woman was convicted of murder on the basis of her EEG data? (On the basis of her EEG data, she was alleged to be “familiar with the circumstances surrounding the poisoning of her ex-fiancé.”)
They Almost Can
Well, hold on to your hats.
Because, as fantastic as it sounds, brain scientists are now able to know what some of their subjects are thinking.
Using functional MRI (fMRI), researchers are now – today – this minute – able to map our brain activity in real-time and know which test object we’re thinking of.
They can now tell to some extent what a subject’s intentions are.
They can look at the scans and, to some extent, tell where a subject has been (Were they at the crime scene? Were they at an Al Qaeda training camp? Did the convention delegates go to the strip club?).
And some of this research is being conducted right here in Dayton, Ohio.
This work now requires a giant, expensive MRI machine but there is talk of remote and subtle capabilities, so that you (yes, you) might not even know you were being scanned. The talk among researchers is that it may soon (but not tomorrow) be possible to probe the first few millimeters of our brain matter with a “beam of light” and interpret the underlying neuronal activity from the light reflected by those cells. Or, there may soon be sensor technology which can detect your EEG signals from a distance, rather than just at close range by way of one of those funny looking hats.
Some scientists are actually estimating a timeline for reading complex thoughts, such as “I like thus-and-such because …”, in as little as five years.
But complex thoughts are not required for some marketers. The technology is already being used for both marketing research and truth verification.
This is a Big Deal
Our thoughts have always been our own. Our thoughts have always been who we are. And soon others may have a right to access our thoughts, without our consent, and even without our knowledge.
It is wonderful, mind-boggling and awesome. Paraphrasing Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta: it’s almost as if there is no science fiction anymore.
Dayton, ABC 22
CBS News, 60 Minutes, 2009
Vijayan K. Asari, University of Dayton
Vijayan K. Asari, University of Dayton News
No Lie MRI
Sensor Technology in Dayton