Book review: neurotech aims to read your mind – and more

Companies and governments already surveil us through our laptops and smartphones. But at least we have our thoughts to ourselves, right? For now, a new book warns.

Neurotechnology companies are really good at PR. They’re proving to be scarily effective at convincing people that ever more sophisticated brain-hacking devices will do wonders for you personally and, of course, for all humanity.

In reality, if you’re thrilled, you should also be disturbed. And if you think all this is a bit utopian – think again.

In her new book “The Battle for Your Brain,” Nita Farahany, a professor of philosophy and law at Duke University, takes readers to the very frontier of the ongoing struggle for our minds. Beyond lies muddy wilderness.

Easy to feel enthusiastic

Recent technological leaps in neuroscience and artificial intelligence have converged to give us consumer neurotech devices – headsets, electrode-enabled earbuds, hats, or other gadgets that connect our brains to computers.

Not that long ago, such devices were quite rightly dismissed as little more than toys, but super smart algorithms now allow computers to analyze brain signals and decode them.

Obviously, not all of these public-facing devices are high-quality, but there are now more than 300,000 different mobile health apps available worldwide, and their market value has surpassed $100 billion.

That’s just, of course, for general health. More specific neurotechnology can tell us if we’re wired to be conservative or liberal, whether we really suffer from insomnia, and conclude that we’re in lust but not in love, for example.

Some of the innovations seem useful. In American football, for example, smart football helmets will soon diagnose concussions immediately after they occur. Devices can also track the slow-down of activities in brain regions associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and dementia.

Sure, not everyone wants to know if one of these conditions is on the cards for them. However, for those that do, they’ll be able to prepare themselves better.

Neurotech also usefully warns people who suffer from epilepsy of an impending seizure, and there have been cases where people with neural implants could move objects using only the power of their thoughts.

There are already loads of neurotech devices out there, but the most prominent is Neuralink’s brain chip implant. The start-up’s owner Elon Musk insists that the technology will restore full mobility to paralyzed patients, and Neuralink is planning to livestream its first human implant surgery later this year.

Neuralink will livestream its first human implant surgery this year. Image by Shutterstock.

Again, it’s easy to feel enthusiastic about the promise of technology if it makes our lives safer and more enjoyable. We at Cybernews always say that data is king, and people benefit if they’re able to take charge of it.

The stuff of nightmares

But of course, there’s more – especially once governments and corporations enter the frame. Farahany says this dark-ish side of neurotech is “a Pandora’s box that keeps me up at night.”

What’s in the box? Well, the same neuroscience that gives us intimate access to ourselves can allow companies, governments, and all kinds of actors – who don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind – access too.

If this isn’t already worrying, Farahany has bad news – the journey towards a world of total brain transparency, where folks peer into our brains and minds at will, has already begun.

In China, workers in government-controlled factories are required to wear EEG sensors to monitor their productivity and their emotional states, and they can be sent home based on what their brains reveal.

Now, China is far from democratic. On the contrary, the country is accused of persecuting the Uyghur minority in the province of Xinjiang and uses facial recognition en masse. What would happen if Beijing could also track the contents of its citizens' brains and draw predictable conclusions?

Arrests for thought crimes aren't unimaginable, Farahany warns – as is the possibility that people will start trying to censor even their own thoughts, that last realm of true privacy. And let's not forget Big Tech firms – different from China, of course, but no less hungry for your data, especially raw brain data.

In China, workers in government-controlled factories are required to wear EEG sensors to monitor their productivity and their emotional states, and they can be sent home based on what their brains reveal.

Farahany names various shiny neurotech wearables being developed by companies such as Meta, Snap, Apple, or Microsoft. The future can look bright indeed: who wouldn't like to navigate web browsers and apps with their brains?

Yet a timely reminder is provided. "Whether worn on our scalps, wrists, or deeply embedded in our brains, all these devices share one striking commonality. Each records our raw neural activity – which can be saved, aggregated, and mined for much more than what consumers are using it for,” Farahany writes.

“The black box of our brains has been opened. Neural interface is the 'holy grail' of data tracking by corporations.”

Cognitive liberty for all

Finally, even if all these innovations were perfectly legal, hackers are just around the corner. They could, for instance, install brain spyware into the apps and devices you’re using.

Eleven years ago at UC Berkeley, this was tried on gamers who were using neural interfaces to control a video game. As they played, subliminal images were inserted into the game so that the players’ unconscious brains could be probed for reaction to stimuli – like bank details, for example.

Unsurprisingly – and unbeknownst to the gamers, the researchers were able to steal information from their brains by measuring brain responses that signal recognition to stimuli, including the PIN code for one gamer’s credit card.

Think you’re shielded from targeted misuse if there’s no identifying information? You’re wrong – in the near future, our brain patterns may be even more unique than our fingerprints, Farahany explains.

What’s worse, a lack of regulation might mean a future in which we “become instruments of passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission.”

Nothing in the Constitution, state, and federal laws, or international treaties gives individuals even rudimentary sovereignty over their own brains, Farahany says. This book can be called an urgent call to defend a right to what she calls “cognitive liberty” and “mental privacy.”

However, Farahany is no Luddite. On the contrary, she seems eager to find the right balance between protecting rights and encouraging innovation. For instance, she approves of rather controversial therapies that promise to erase negative memories. This is informed by her own terrible experience of losing a child.

The author does invest too much in the idea that updates to international law will save us all. Her dive into the various chapters of numerous UN treaties seems too deep and naive because, nowadays, international law is scorned in more and more countries (not to mention criminal organizations).

But the list of questions she produces in the introduction is especially smart and thought-provoking. Ask yourself: what will it mean if our thoughts and emotions are up for grabs, just like the rest of our data?

Does freedom of thought protect us from governments tracking our brains and mental processes? Will unlocking our brains open our minds to targeted assaults and hacking, and if so, how do we protect ourselves against that risk?

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