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Lauren Bayer

Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Will mind-reading eventually become a reality and what are the implications for humanity?

This week in my bioelectricity class, we learned about using electrical stimulation to mimic the electrical signals of the body. The nervous system uses electrical signals as it performs its tasks of communicating, processing information, storing memories, etc. As we learn more about the language of the nervous system, we can use advanced technology to “speak” to the body and get it to perform tasks that the body's nervous system might not be able to do. Neural prosthetics, for instance, provide electrical stimulation to the nerves that are connected to muscles, allowing those muscles which were paralyzed to move again.
As we learn more information about the “language” of the nervous system, science has begun to correlate certain actions or stimuli with specific frequencies and behavioral patterns of electrical activity in the brain. For example, many scientists studying the visual system look at firing rate patterns in the visual cortex of the brain and use the data to predict the images that are being seen.
Ultimately this reverse correlation process might be able to be applied to all parts of the brain, including memory.
This led me to wonder, do you think that there will ever be a time where we will literally be able to read people's brains? If we can one day understand how the brain processes every bit of information – then theoretically we should be able to measure the electrical activity from the deep layers of the brain and be able to predict what the person is thinking. And also in the reverse direction – what would happen if we could ever be able to use electrical stimulation to “insert” memories into people's brains?
Do you think this technology could be useful for treating patients with dementia who have lost their memories – in which patients could create a “back-up” file of their own memories in case they ever start to lose it? What implications would such technology have on humanity? And do you see ways in which it could be detrimental/beneficial?

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  • Apr 18 2013: What about when you have a remote control where you can control your own thoughts? Will human civilization end when we all have dials where we can just turn on "happy and contented"? What about when the powers that be decide to make your brain more obedient? The military tries to desensitivize people to killing. What if they could deactivate a soldiers empathy in order to make him kill more effectively. What if you could develop a bio-weapon that increased human empathy? Instead of incinerating our enemies with explosions and fire we could just make them sympathetic in order to stop any attack on people. We have the notion of chemically castrating sex offenders. What if we could change the emotions so they would no longer commit crimes? How would society progress if every child could push a button to make themselves incredibly focused and intelligent unlocking the promise of every child?

    Unlocking the mysteries of human thought leads to a lot of questions and possibilities. You can easily conjure both nightmares and dreams. You should watch the TV show Dollhouse. It explores the idea of uploading and downloading personalities. You should also watch the movie Serenity since it involves the idea of widespread through manipulation.
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      Apr 18 2013: Hi William,
      thank you for your comment. I think you make a very good point, that this kind of technology could be extremely powerful. Many important issues will come up - like the role of the government in our lives. personal privacy, man's control over his emotions, and free will. All important things to consider when designing any new technology. I think human society would have to find a way to use this technology in the best way possible so that humans remain "human" and have the ability to have levels of privacy, think for themselves etc.. while at the same time employing the technology to further benefit mankind.
      This not only applies to this kind of phenomenon - but really any new technology. For instance, with the progress of medicine , we not only have drugs that can cure diseases but also drugs that can kill people faster. It's up to humans to decide how they want to use it.

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