Privacy of the Mind

Why pop pills, for example, when a neural interface could do the same job?

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I’ve always been a sucker for sci-fi, whether it’s the latest news post on artificial intelligence or a recent episode of Black Mirror on Netflix. But leave it up to a 400-year-old British academy to provide us with an interesting foresight on an issue that’s as far in the future as landing on Mars.

The topic is neural links or interfaces, which are essentially all the exotic ways scientists hope to tie our brain impulses with machines. Already used to help disabled people move limbs, the interfaces work with implants in the head or electrodes on the skin. No surprise here, but Elon Musk has his own company that applies the tech on rats, while Facebook studies wearable devices that would let us “type with our brains.”

But what caught my eye was a report by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences, which describes itself as “the oldest national scientific institution in the world.” Titled iHuman: Blurring Lines Between Mind and Machine, the report gives an intriguing rundown of how we might be living if these devices reach their full potential.

Why pop pills, for example, when a neural interface could do the same job? Concentration, sleep, and many other tasks could be improved through correctly planted impulses. And then there’s the mind-boggling idea of linking mind and machine. Imagine playing games inside your head, or remote robotics that allow surgeons to perform operations thousands of miles away.

All of which is exciting from a human-experience and business-opportunity perspective. But now come some sticky issues, like privacy. Clearly, these devices would reveal a lot about our minds and mental state that we probably wouldn’t want to share. Our thoughts, after all, consist of a lot more than the memory inside a smartphone can ever store. And what happens if one group can afford this deluxe tech, while another can’t?

The Royal Society calls these “critical ethical questions” and says the tech should be debated, approved, and regulated as it rolls out. Well, that’s a lot to consider about something that’s decades away or may never happen. But looking at how quickly one disruptive technology after another has crept up on us today, it’s impressive to at least raise the idea of getting ahead on this one. That alone is its own form of innovation.