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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 23 2013: Hey Lauren! Awesome question. I've often thought about this myself, being a fan of science fiction and superhero stories since I was a child. The fact that we can discuss this question in a real-world setting is exciting and intriguing, to say the least.

    I think the first part of your question brings about a really interesting moral issue. Even if it is possible to "insert" memories into people's minds, I'm inclined to believe that it's entirely immoral to do so, and that the implications would be disastrous- how can we trust witnesses in a trial if this technology exists?

    The second half of your question is fascinating, for the amount of good it could do. Having a "backup file" of memories would be fantastic, however, depending on the specific disease it would correspond to, would there be a feasible way to restore memories? If a portion of the brain is damaged, no amount of electrical stimulation in replacing memories will return functionality to that part of the tissue.

    On the other hand, once this technology is widespread, all memories are suddenly suspect (is this an actual memory or a fabrication?) and so they become less important, less special. I think the implications are just as much emotional and societal as they are technological, and I think this prompt could sound like either the setup of a great dystopian novel, or a fantastic foundation of the future, depending on how we as society implement this technology.
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      Apr 23 2013: I think it is often hard to trust our own memories, and eye witnesses can be very unreliable. The notorious implanted memories from therapists is a good example. I would hope that augmented memory would be more reliable!
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        Apr 23 2013: Hi Hindi and Danger Lampost!

        I think I agree with Hindi on the dangerous implications of "back-up"able or reproducible memories. By providing access to people's memories, a new door is opened for false fabrication. For example, with every new social media site that comes up on the internet, there is a new set of hackers ready to exploit the information of its users. Likewise, the implementation of a memory "materializer" could result in those that exploit the figments of our imagination that were once personal and special. Materialization in this sense does not have to be physical. Data held in the cloud still has a "physical" form because we are still able to extract the information and modify it.

        Hindi, I LOVE your thought on how this could be the start to a dystopian society! With every new bit of knowledge we gain, we hit new forks in the road that demand the direction we wish to take our society. I completely agree that the disadvantages of mind-reading are horrifying, but the advantages could reinvent medicine, politics, education, etc in such a positive way!

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