The Government Is Trying to Wrap Its Mind Around Yours

Imagine a world of streets lined with video cameras that alert authorities to any suspicious activity. A world where police officers can read the minds of potential criminals and arrest them before they commit any crimes. A world in which a suspect who lies under questioning gets nabbed immediately because his brain has given him away.

Though that may sound a lot like the plot of the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” starring Tom Cruise and based on a Philip K. Dick novel, I’m not talking about science fiction here; it turns out we’re not so far away from that world. But does it sound like a very safe place, or a very scary one?

It’s a question I think we should be asking as the federal government invests millions of dollars in emerging technology aimed at detecting and decoding brain activity. And though government funding focuses on military uses for these new gizmos, they can and do end up in the hands of civilian law enforcement and in commercial applications. As spending continues and neurotechnology advances, that imagined world is no longer the stuff of science fiction or futuristic movies, and we postpone at our peril confronting the ethical and legal dilemmas it poses for a society that values not just personal safety but civil liberty as well.

Consider Cernium Corp.’s “Perceptrak” video surveillance and monitoring system, recently installed by Johns Hopkins University, among others. This technology grew out of a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense — to develop intelligent video analytics systems. Unlike simple video cameras monitored by security guards, Perceptrak integrates video cameras with an intelligent computer video. It uses algorithms to analyze streaming video and detect suspicious activities, such as people loitering in a secure area, a group converging or someone leaving a package unattended. Since installing Perceptrak, Johns Hopkins has reported a 25 percent reduction in crime.

But that’s only the beginning. Police may soon be able to monitor suspicious brain activity from a distance as well. New neurotechnology soon may be able to detect a person who is particularly nervous, in possession of guilty knowledge or, in the more distant future, to detect a person thinking, “Only one hour until the bomb explodes.” Today, the science of detecting and decoding brain activity is in its infancy. But various government agencies are funding the development of technology to detect brain activity remotely and are hoping to eventually decode what someone is thinking. Scientists, however, wildly disagree about the accuracy of brain imaging technology, what brain activity may mean and especially whether brain activity can be detected from afar.

Yet as the experts argue about the scientific limitations of remote brain detection, this chilling science fiction may already be a reality. In 2002, the Electronic Privacy Information Center reported that NASA was developing brain monitoring devices for airports and was seeking to use noninvasive sensors in passenger gates to collect the electronic signals emitted by passengers’ brains. Scientists scoffed at the reports, arguing that to do what NASA was proposing required that an electroencephalogram (EEG) be physically attached to the scalp.

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Neuromarketing could make mind reading the ad-man’s ultimate tool

Neuroscience and marketing had a love child a few years back. Its name – big surprise – is neuromarketing, and the ugly little fellow is growing up. Corporate pitchmen have always wanted to get inside our skulls. The more accurately they can predict how we’ll react to stimuli in the marketplace, from prices to packages to adverts, the more money they can pull from our pockets and transfer to their employers’ coffers.

But picking the brains of consumers hasn’t been easy. Marketers have had to rely on indirect methods to read our thoughts and feelings. They’ve watched what we do in stores or tracked how purchases rise or fall in response to promotional campaigns or changes in pricing. And they’ve carried out endless surveys and focus groups, asking us what we buy and why.

The results have been mixed at best. People, for one thing, don’t always know what they’re thinking, and even when they do, they’re not always honest in reporting it. Traditional market research is fraught with bias and imprecision, which forces companies to fall back on hunches and rules of thumb.

But thanks to recent breakthroughs in brain science, companies can now actually see what goes on inside our minds when we shop. Teams of academic and corporate neuromarketers have begun to hook people up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines to map how their neurons respond to products and pitches.

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Can a thinking, remembering, decision-making, biologically accurate brain be built from a supercomputer?

Out of the Blue

Can a thinking, remembering, decision-making, biologically accurate brain be built from a supercomputer?

In the basement of a university in Lausanne, Switzerland sit four black boxes, each about the size of a refrigerator, and filled with 2,000 IBM microchips stacked in repeating rows. Together they form the processing core of a machine that can handle 22.8 trillion operations per second. It contains no moving parts and is eerily silent. When the computer is turned on, the only thing you can hear is the continuous sigh of the massive air conditioner. This is Blue Brain.

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