The ethics of mind-reading


A study that sounds like the stuff of science fiction was recently published in PLoS biology (If you don’t speak Scientific Gobbledygook, it is translated here). In the study, scientists were able to identify the words that human subjects were thinking by analyzing the electrical patterns in certain parts of their brain. Scientists hope that some day this line of study may lead to techniques that would allow people who cannot speak, because of some type of brain damage, to communicate by direct neural control of devices that would, literally, read their minds and speak for them.

In his book The Technological Society Jacques Ellul described the characteristics of technology in modern society. (Actually, he wrote about technique, of which technology is a subset.) One characteristic, which he termed monism, is that a technology tends to spread and be applied everywhere it can be applied without regard as to whether it is a “good” or “bad” use, because monism “imposes the bad with the good uses of technique.” Ellul provides many examples to back up his assertion.

The type of “mind-reading” described in the PLoS article is in its infancy, and may never progress beyond the stage of interesting but not very practical experiments. But it is not difficult to imagine the sort of pernicious ends for which such technology might be used if it lives up to the hope of researchers and ends up in the wrong hands — say, the paranoid rulers of a modern security state. It is not difficult to imagine what someone with wrong intent or motives could do with the power to see into another’s mind. And if Ellul is right, there will be a natural tendency for the technology to be put to such uses.

Rather than simply be reactive, the job of bioethics must be proactive, to even now, in the infancy stage of such technology, be placing safeguards around its uses to try to ensure that its potential benefit is realized while its potential threats to human thriving and dignity are thwarted. The attempt to limit technology’s application, to shepherd it into what we consider ethical uses, will go against all of the inherent tendencies of technology. It will go against all of our society’s unquestioned faith in the benefit and rule of technology. But it is necessary if such technologies are not to be used in the hands of some to wield a terrible power over others.


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