TED Conversations

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 19 2013: On one level, we read each other's minds all the time, and language and mirror neurons play a large roll in that. On a deeper level, I think some people have gifts that some would call "telepathy".

    But I think your question is more about whether we can plug our brain into a device that records those thoughts in such a way that they can be played back in such a way that any person could understand the thoughts in the recording. Japanese experiments have recorded some dream images, and we are slowly mapping out other "thoughts" as well.

    Mt guess: Over the coming centuries, not only will we be able to read people's minds, but we will also be able to experience their experiences, inject an "artificial" reality into their minds, The Matrix style. It's only a matter of time. Ultimately we'll be able to upload people's minds, live effectively "forever", complete with all your memories and personality, and you will still feel like you. Is it really you, or just a simulation of you? We'll let's ask you once you're in a simulation and see what you have to say.

    I know many of my TED friends here do not believe that these things are even possible in principle. And many other TEDsters would not want to be part of such a future, or would want to end a natural life at their natural time.

    If I am right, then ultimately, the implications for humanity are profound beyond profound, and we will eventually get to a point where the human species may well be a quaint anachronism, and souls occasionally reincarnate in human bodies (at least what they perceive to be human bodies) just to re-experience what it used to be like in the old days. Kind of like taking a vacation, a bit like the movie Total Recall for souls.
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      Apr 21 2013: Hi Danger,
      thank you for your contribution. I'm glad to hear that you agree with some of my predictions. I am curious if man will ever be able to read our minds, and I think that depends on the very nature of the brain. If our memories and thoughts are so contextual and rely heavily on biochemical processes, then maybe our memories will not be able to be stored on an external device. However, if we can figure out a way to represent our memories and thought processes in some concrete way then perhaps it is possible.
      If it would occur, I agree with you that the implications for humanity are profound, and I think it would completely change the nature of the human race. While most of the comments here have said it will affect it badly, maybe we can find ways in which this technology can enhance the human race. Maybe we'll discover how to use our minds in ways never before known, and like you said be able to keep representations of ourselves alive - that sounds a bit like living forever, which is kind of creepy - but you never know! The sci-fi movies that we've come to love and cherish, might not actually be so far from reality!
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        Apr 21 2013: When some people say things like "we are energy", and "energy can not be destroyed so are eternal" and so on, I strongly disagree with these points of view.

        But I think they are close - I think "we are 100% information", and information for sure can be destroyed, but it can also be copied and it can also be eternal. Information requires some manner of matter or energy in which to operate, in which the information can grow and learn. [Note: It is quite possible and consistent with my thinking, for the information in our souls to persist after death, and even continue to live on and grow, but I personally have no evidence to that effect so until I see some, I will continue to assume that does not happen, but now we're down a different discussion...]

        A given information pattern can be replayed on many different kinds of physical devices so long as that device supports the full fidelity of data underlying the information and allows the information to "live" and evolve over time according to its needs.

        Many TEDsters here would argue that in principle, there is something about the human mind and/or brain (or soul) that is unique, and that in principle it is impossible to truly transfer key parts of our brains, such as our memories, to an external device. I disagree with that point of view.

        From the perspective of information theory, I can't see how there could be any permanent dependency on biochemical processes in order to operate the information of our mind. It may be that we copy elements of biological processes in our own man made designs, which we do all the time, and maybe we do recreate parts of those biological processes outside the brain, but that is "just an implementation detail". The memory wouldn't know or care.
        • Apr 23 2013: It's strange how people who study science always show by their findings that the Bible is more than religion. For example, the Bible says that we will ending up with a new body that we will receive from God our creator that we will be able to do more than what we now think is possible. Living in a kind off energy field in which the spirit lives and able to do more greater things in real love than now is possible at this present time. But we will be loved by JHWH our Creater. Not used and trow away.His light will be our energy suply I think. He is telling about a nwe world witout the sun becouse He wil be the energie and light. Is the bible talking about the future off mankind? In the end off time that is now! we will gain more and more knowledge!!! That's what the Bible teaches! Is the bible siencefiction?

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