I was flipping through the RSS feeds this morning checking out the new headlines when I came across this one: “Surfing the Web with nothing but brainwaves. Kiss your keyboard goodbye: Soon we’ll jack our brains directly into the Net – and that’s just the beginning“. That’s quite a sensational headline. The article by Chris Taylor makes some pretty bold claims that are worth scrutinizing. The mind/body connection is one of my favorite topics so I’ll hit the highlights here and give some responses.
“Someday, keyboards and computer mice will be remembered only as medieval-style torture devices for the wrists. All work – emails, spreadsheets, and Google searches – will be performed by mind control.”
That’s pretty much the thesis of the article. The pertinent question to me is: what does he mean by “mind control”? Let’s look at his first example.
“Nagle, a 26-year-old quadriplegic, was hooked up to a computer via an implant smaller than an aspirin that sits on top of his brain and reads electrical patterns. Using that technology, he learned how to move a cursor around a screen, play simple games, control a robotic arm, and even – couch potatoes, prepare to gasp in awe – turn his brain into a TV remote control.”
This is nothing new. It’s basically turning an electroencephalograph(EEG) into a controller rather than a recorder so that the electrical impulses coming from the brain trigger actions instead of just being recorded. It’s neat, but it no more qualifies as “mind control” than eating a sandwich does. Instead of an EEG controlling a robotic arm, your nerves are controling your real arm. What is being read is not your mind but the actions that result from mental events. By the time something is registered on an EEG, the mental event that caused that action in the brain has already taken place and what is being seen are the results.
“Nagle was able to accomplish all this because the brain has been greatly demystified in laboratories over the last decade or so. Researchers unlocked the brain patterns for thoughts that represent letters of the alphabet as early as 1999.”
Without knowing exactly what research he is referring to here, I can only assume that he is talking about something like this, where the brain is examined while alphabet exercises are performed by the subject. Again, this hardly qualifies as having “unlocked the brain patterns for thoughts that represent letters of the alphabet”. That makes it sound like you can look at an MRI scan and say “Ah, we see here that he is thinking about the letter Q.” That is absolutely not the case. What we have here is another example of the measurement of reactions to mental events. We are not seeing the mental events themselves, because mental events aren’t the type of things that can be directly measured.
Also, to say the brain has been greatly demystified is a monumental overstatement. At least Adam Keiper thinks so when he writes:
“What that etymological shift somewhat obscures, though, is that EEG is most assuredly not mind-reading. The waves of the EEG do not actually represent thoughts; they represent a sort of jumbled total of many different activities of many different neurons. Beyond that, there remains a great deal of mystery to the EEG. As James Madison University professor Joseph H. Spear recently pointed out in the journal Perspectives in Science, there remains a “fundamental uncertainty” in EEG research: “No one is quite certain as to what the EEG actually measures.” This mystery can be depressing for EEG researchers. Spear quotes a 1993 EEG textbook that laments the “malaise” and “signs of pessimism, fatigue, and resignation” that electroencephalographers evince because of the slow theoretical progress in their field.”
That paints a very different picture than what Chris Taylor says in his article. Taylor goes on to give some more examples of neurofeedback devices before laying this one out there:
“Brain-reading technology is improving rapidly. Last year, Sony took out a patent on a game system that beams data directly into the mind without implants. It uses a pulsed ultrasonic signal that induces sensory experiences such as smells, sounds and images.”
Sounds incredible, but what he forgot to mention was the fact that Sony took out this patent as an anticipatory business move. There is no device or prototype or even any research that Sony has done to back up it’s feasability. Here is a quote by a Sony spokeswoman about the patent:
“Elizabeth Boukis, spokeswoman for Sony Electronics, says the work is speculative. “There were not any experiments done,” she says. “This particular patent was a prophetic invention. It was based on an inspiration that this may someday be the direction that technology will take us.”"
And just to top it all off. The whopper:
“Controlling devices with the mind is just the beginning. Next, Wolf believes, is what he calls “network-enabled telepathy” – instant thought transfer. In other words, your thoughts will flow from your brain over the network right into someone else’s brain. If you think instant messaging is addictive, just wait for instant thinking.”
“The only issue, Wolf says, is making sure it’s consensual; that’s a problem likely to tax the minds of security experts.”
Exactly what would you be transferring? You can’t transfer thoughts. They are non-physical. I guess you could transfer the same type of data that you get from EEG readings, but what exactly would that represent? You can’t think a certain sentence in your head and then extract that sentence from the brain. The mind deals with content, not representation of content. When you think, you think of, or about something. You don’t think the letter A. You think about the letter A. Those two things are totally different.
See my previous post for more thoughts on this topic.