February 9, 2007
Raskol in the meatspace forums “Tech News of the Day” thread, found this wonderful Minority Report Redux tidbit in the Guardian: A team of world-leading neuroscientists headed up by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany claims to have developed a system that analyses brain activity that allows them to look deep inside a person’s brain and read their intentions before they act.
The team used high-resolution brain scans to identify patterns of activity before translating them into meaningful thoughts, revealing what a person planned to do in the near future. It is the first time scientists have succeeded in reading intentions in this way.
…The research builds on a series of recent studies in which brain imaging has been used to identify tell-tale activity linked to lying, violent behaviour and racial prejudice.
The latest work reveals the dramatic pace at which neuroscience is progressing, prompting the researchers to call for an urgent debate into the ethical issues surrounding future uses for the technology. If brain-reading can be refined, it could quickly be adopted to assist interrogations of criminals and terrorists, and even usher in a “Minority Report” era (as portrayed in the Steven Spielberg science fiction film of that name), where judgments are handed down before the law is broken on the strength of an incriminating brain scan.
Hmmm, OK, well, a cyberpunked future is on its way here perhaps faster than we imagined. Looking at the horizen, we have genetic engineering, nanobots, significant advances in cybernetic limbs, and now precog brainscanning machines. Since its a machine that does the precog, does mean we won’t have to force Somantha Morton to get nekid and sit in a pool of water for hours on end? Hopefully we still get the little red wooden balls the machine spits out - those were kinda cool. Seriously though, the potential impact of this technology is bizarre enough that even the “evil genius” scientists who created it are yearning for an ethical debate on its use:
“These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate about the implications, so that one day we’re not surprised and overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do. These things are going to come to us in the next few years and we should really be prepared,” Professor Haynes told the Guardian.
…”Do we want to become a ‘Minority Report’ society where we’re preventing crimes that might not happen?,” Barbara Sahakian, a professor of neuro-psychology at Cambridge University asked. “For some of these techniques, it’s just a matter of time. It is just another new technology that society has to come to terms with and use for the good, but we should discuss and debate it now because what we don’t want is for it to leak into use in court willy nilly without people having thought about the consequences.
In reading that, one is almost left wondering whether these scientists are struggling with the old SciFi cliché of the scientists, upon reaching the precipice of success, realize how truly detrimental this technology could be to society. Unfortunately, like most Sci-Fi stories, rarely is their last-second ethical awareness conversion sufficient to stop the tide. But like all technological innovations, this too may have a potentially positive impact on society:
The technology could also drive advances in brain-controlled computers and machinery to boost the quality of life for disabled people. Being able to read thoughts as they arise in a person’s mind could lead to computers that allow people to operate email and the internet using thought alone, and write with word processors that can predict which word or sentence you want to type. The technology is also expected to lead to improvements in thought-controlled wheelchairs and artificial limbs that respond when a person imagines moving.
Wow, I just hope this technology really works. In reading that last bit, all I can think about is “Microsoft Paperclip Gone Wild!” While the paperclip “tries” to be a precog, it tends to fall far short of that mark. Imagine the poor wheelchair bound dude who has these implants “paper-clipping” his supposed intentions every time he gets a random thought - “NO, I wanted the beer, not the milk, dammit!!!” Combine this technology with those studies that show that guys have like 100 sexual thoughts an hour, I can only imagine how the precog paperclip implant handles those random urges in a social setting. I eagerly await a YouTube video of this idea!