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 20 2013: Hi Lauren,
    The question you posed is both incredibly fascinating and incredibly horrifying. I personally do feel that as we map out the electrical signals in the brain and gather data on how the different signals are interpreted, we come closer to “reading people’s brains”. But at the same time, we do still have a long way to go. I would imagine we will start from just basic interpretation of what kind of emotions a person is feeling, happy, sad, angry, confused, etc… I say basic but of course this would be a feat of its own considering how complex emotions can be and how they manifest differently in each individual. Understanding exactly what a person is thinking is still far away, but I believe it could happen. That being said, it is interesting to imagine what that could mean for humanity. Used properly, this ability could benefit a lot of people. In terms of medical treatments, helping patients with dementia like you suggested could be very advantageous. It could be used in the justice system to glean truthful information about a case from a suspect or witness. But it could also be highly dangerous. Imagine what it could mean if abused by politicians, terrorists, or corrupt officials. I think we have a long time before such technology can be developed and trusted to exist in our society.
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      Apr 21 2013: Neema, I agree with you.

      One day soon, we may be able to read the human brain and interpret the mind using technology. No matter how basic the mind reading is, it is a terrifying thought that technology will have advanced that far. Of course, this sort of technology can be beneficial for use as medical treatments, but imagine all of the negative possibilities it enables for mankind. In essence, we as humans need to be weary of the advancement of technology. If technology advances too fast, too quick, it has the possibility of being very harmful to the human species. What does this mean for our future, if such mind reading technologies were available? How could we trust the technology? Mankind will be a much different animal when this sort of technology is readily available and used.

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