Brain-machine interface technologies have opened up the possibility that the visually impaired will be able to see by virtue of digital-camera technologies interfacing directly with the visual regions of the cerebral cortex through electrode implants. People paralyzed due to central nervous system damage can look forward to the day when artificial limbs interfacing with motor regions of the brain and providing “closed loop” sensory feedback will restore their capacity to move. These are nearly miraculous applications of a brain-machine interface. However, there is also a dark side to such technology that will need to be addressed very soon.
Digital technologies like Bluetooth have already narrowed the gap between the brain and the wireless transmission of data. Today people commonly walk around wearing ear pieces and carrying on phone conversations with others in remote locations over a wireless connection. Smartphones provide a constant online feed of information via the government’s Global Positioning System (GPS), which provides a virtual sort of “extrasensory” ability to navigate.
As brain-machine interface technologies advance, it will become possible to connect the brain directly to the Internet. As a result, people will be able to receive digital data feeds downloaded not to their PCs or to their smartphones but directly to their brains from the Internet. Such links will employ noninvasive nanotechnologies, and the fact that someone is equipped to utilize them will be invisible to the naked eye. Thus, a person will have the ability to “know”—in nanoseconds and invisibly—anything that can be downloaded from the Internet. It could be thought of as cognition on steroids!
Unfortunately, this incredible boost to brain power has its price. The dark side of being able to go online with your mind, to have your brain connected directly to the Internet, should be evident to anyone who has had a virus infect his or her computer. Given such Brain-Internet Interface (BII) technology, it will not be our computers that will risk infection. It will be our minds.
Classically, advertisers have used association psychology and attitude fitting to “persuade” consumers to buy their products. Thus in one ad for an antiperspirant, a blind man drops a bag of garbage next to a woman in a sexy green dress. In another, Shaquille O’Neal downs a Pepsi. In another, a car is cast as being “sexy.” Now, companies like Google/DoubleClick are resorting to “behavioral” advertising. These companies routinely plant “cookies” in your computers in order to collect your personal data so that they can inundate you with ads on your computer tailored to appeal to your particular interests and behavioral habits.
With the advent of BII technology, behavioral advertising wouldn’t plant that cookie in your computer but rather in your mind. That tailored stream of advertising wouldn’t ripple across a computer monitor or television screen—it would stream across your mind.
Here I use mind in the sense that it is to your brain as software is to hardware. Malicious code of the sort that now affects computer programs could now program, or reprogram, “higher” brain activities such as cognition, emotion, and volition. Of course, the savvy user would have a “firewall” between mind and Internet to block such viruses. Unfortunately, just as with current filtering technologies, there would always be ingenious, even diabolic attempts to breach that firewall, and there would be times when the best available defenses could not guard against such cyber attacks.
The consequences of such a brave new world are chilling. Our brains would be in continual jeopardy of being seized, controlled, or even crashed.
Cyber terrorists would have a new weapon. For its part, government would have (or at least claim to have) a vested interest in what gets downloaded to your brain. So government would claim a right to police the global network that connects to individual brains.
Already, the U.S. government stands constant vigil over electronic communications. Deep inside the hubs of major telecom companies such as AT&T are National Security Agency (NSA) computers connected to cable networks via fiber-optic splitters; these copy all incoming electronic e-mail, telephone, and Internet communications, which are then downloaded to a giant NSA database. Powerful link and analysis software inspect these electronic messages using top-secret algorithms. In a BII-enabled capacity, this infrastructure would support the analysis of people’s thoughts. The outcome would be Gattaca with a vengeance. Internet police would morph into George Orwell’s mind police, and the ideals of personal freedom and autonomy would stand for little.
Science fiction, you say? Not really. The technology to create this digital nightmare is now well underway. Exactly how it will be utilized is an open question, but make no mistake: it will be developed and mainstreamed.
The most potent safeguard against potentially dangerous ideas is not to keep them secret but rather to bring them into the public eye so they can be carefully weighed and evaluated. Citizens of the world need to begin the public discourse on such transformative technologies now. Otherwise, these technologies will be brought to market and sold to unenlightened consumers before we have deduced how best to handle them safely.
Beware the advent of new technologies that move us closer to closing the gap between the computer and the human brain. As soon as the distinction vanishes, so will human freedom, autonomy, and dignity.