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Tech News: Machines can read your thoughts

Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Published Sep 13, 2021


In George Owell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Thought Police (Thinkpol) are the secret police of the superstate of Oceania that were able to discover and punish thoughtcrimes or “unapproved thoughts”.

Long before the publication of Orwell’s novel, the Empire of Japan, in 1911, established the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (Special Higher Police), a political police force also known as Shisō Keisatsu or the Thought Police.

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They investigated and controlled ideologies that were considered a threat to the public order. However, in neither of these cases the Thought Police could actually read the minds or thoughts of people.

Decoding brain signals

But technology has come a long way since then. In 2019, Rafael Yuste from Columbia University successfully supplanted a visual stimulus in the form of an image directly into the brains of mice thereby taking control of their behaviour. Yuste is excited about his ability to alter at will the behavioural performance of animals and hopes to include humans in future experiments. It is, therefore, possible that this technology will mature in the future and that we will be capable of reading and reprogramming human minds.

China and the US are both investing heavily in research into artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience. Large organisations such as Facebook and Neuralink, Elon Musk’s brain-machine interface company, are also making significant progress. Facebook funded a project to create a brain-computer interface allowing users to communicate by merely imagining the words they want to say. This is done by decoding brain signals sent from the motor cortex to the vocal tract.

After successfully implanting a neurochip in a monkey, thus allowing it to play a game with its mind, Neuralink recently announced that their neurochip will soon be tested on quadriplegics.

In the criminal justice system neuroscientists have used brain scans for diagnostic purposes and to predict the likelihood of criminals becoming reoffenders. Low activity in a particular region of the cortex could tell whether a convict is likely to get in trouble again.

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AI reads minds

Current neurotechnology cannot yet decode people’s thoughts or emotions, but with the exponential advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, that may not even be necessary. Powerful machine-learning systems could easily identify patterns and establish correlative associations between certain patterns of data, mental states, and external activities or circumstances. In the future it may thus be possible to decode thought from neural activity. A good example is that researchers managed to use machine learning to infer the number of a credit card from a person’s brain activity.

Serious concerns

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The major concern about neurological tools of the future is that it can be misused, especially in the light of the great deal of attention it receives from the military, government and technology companies. It has been documented that Chinese employers have used brain sensors, called the Neuro Cap, to monitor their employees’ brainwaves to determine their state of mind and emotions such as panic, rage, depression and sadness. Emotional surveillance has become mandatory in several factories and in the military in China to improve productivity.

Scientists have even subliminally probed for personal information using consumer devices. These EEG-based brain computer interface (BCI) devices analyse the user’s brain activity in order to infer private information such as their bank or area-of-living. This is done in less than 13.3 milliseconds, thus below a person’s cognitive perception.

Regulation is needed

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Several neuroscientists and human rights activists are therefore campaigning that the very last frontier of privacy, the human brain and its thoughts, should be protected from intruders.

The problem is, however, that it is not clear to what extent many countries, including South Africa, had neurotech in mind when privacy legislation were formulated. The very strict European data protection regime, the GDPR, and the South African Protection of Personal Information (Popi) Act, offer significant protection of sensitive and personal data, such as health status and religious beliefs, but should probably be amended in future to include emotions and thoughts.

Current legislation may just not provide adequate protection against the misuse of neurotechnology. We will have to ensure that the same attention given to private life, is also given to the protection of mental privacy since today’s privacy issues will be insignificant to the privacy issues as neurotechnology develops.

Professor Louis Fourie is a technology strategist

If used sensibly, neurotechnology (the direct interaction between machines and human neurons) could in future be used to understand and cure illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. It could also assist with the development of prosthetic limbs and speech therapy. But neurotechnology will have to be carefully regulated, since it could easily lead to corporate and state misuse, including discriminatory policing and privacy violations leaving our minds vulnerable to surveillance and exploitation.

We will have to ensure that people’s rights to keep their thoughts private and protection from assimilation are sufficiently incorporated into legislation.

Professor Louis CH Fourie is a technology strategist

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