This brand-new shift in neuroscience is astonishing.
It’s actual, genuine, scientifically-proven mind-reading. You can see it for yourself and watch the (quite literal) mind-blowing TED talk right now:
Jack Gallant and his team at UC Berkley have used what they call stimulus reconstruction and brain decoding to revolutionise brain imaging. They can replicate, purely from changes in a subject’s neurons, an image or a sound which only the subject has seen. This is something you truly have to witness for yourself to believe.
What’s almost more exciting is their work with language. Once they have refined their techniques, Gallant and his team believe it is theoretically possible to not just replicate what you have heard, but to interpret your imagined speech. This means one thing: Literally reading minds.
Real Mind-Reading – The Good News
The ethical debate behind this put to the side for the minute, what positive effects might this actually have for us as a society? Indulge me for a few minutes in a spot of future-casting across four main areas:
A Brand-New, Mutli-Billion Dollar Industry
One of the biggest changes this could surely make is an entirely new industry springing up to market these technologies for commercial and industrial uses. We’ve only started to see the society-wide effects of Silicon Valley come through in the last few years, and that was started in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Just imagine some of the vast economical and political impact a technology like real mind-reading could generate. Not to mention the jobs it could create, the environmental impact it could have and the combined momentum it and Artificial Intelligence it could create for us as consumers. The good news is most people working in this field are aware of the downfalls.
The positive impact of a completely new industry, starting from the ground up with ethical and environmental concerns as foundation stones which could have even more influence than the start-ups and mega-corporations of Silicon Valley could be society changing.
The Medical and Psychological Implications
Unsurprisingly, the predominant focus of this research so far has been in the medical and psychological world. This, for me, is incredibly exciting.
Imagine the potential for finding out, with a high statistical likelihood, that someone is having suicidal thoughts. The interventions that medical professionals, coaches and friends could make just from knowing there is a smallest possibility of this utterly tragic outcome could save millions of lives every year.
Imagine, too, if we could demonstrate and embody fully what it is like to suffer from depression, anxiety attacks, OCD, autism and all kinds of neuro-diverse experiences. The challenges that would make to a lot of long-held taboos and misinformation around mental health could be incredible.
And let’s not forget what just the brain-mapping tools developed could achieve just on their own for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, let alone the potential for identifying patterns of these decades before their traumatic symptoms take hold.
Lastly, it could provide a solution for one of the medical industries biggest problems: pain. Knowing how much a patient is in pain, and where exactly, is currently only knowable through what the patient says and demonstrates. Seeing a map of the mind which shows the areas and the intensity of the pain would save time and take the guess work out of much medical practice.
For more about this, I highly recommend you watch (or listen to) Radiolab’s Inside “Ouch!” episode:
The Entertainment and Advertising Businesses
It’s no secret that some of the best-known companies in the world are struggling to find their feet in the On-Demand marketplace. Relatively youthful up-starts like Netflix and Amazon have altered the way we view television, and with that, altered the way we see adverts. Even giants like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are seeing traditional banner adverts and idents hit a sharp decline, struggling to come to terms with subscription-based models like Twitch and Patreon.
So what would real mind-reading mean to most of these companies? One deceptively complex key word: Personalisation.
With personalisation, supplied through machine-learning-driven analytics and a clever mix of feedback, companies like YouTube and Twitter could create hyper-bespoke adverts for you and you alone. There’s a primitive form of it running through almost every page of the internet you visit now (which is why you could be browsing for coffee makers on Amazon and see an advert on Facebook for the same one three days later), but it’s a blunt implement with its eyes on heart surgery. What they’re really looking for is a laser-like tool that follows you both online and offline.
Think, for instance, of those scenes in Minority Report:
And it doesn’t stop there. Why do most of spend 20 minutes scrolling through Netflix, only to end up watching the same old TV programme we always do? Because it feels like we have the right balance of freedom to choose and the personalisation that we find familiar and comfortable. Netflix, YouTube and Amazon spend millions a year just to keep that balance in check, and for a good reason.
With a highly tuned algorithm to help, however, these companies could potentially tap straight into how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking and what you’re going to do, even before you know it. That way, the feeling that these companies just sort of know us, could become even stronger and the chances of us unsubscribing get lower and lower.
It could even evolve further. Don’t like what that character just did? The algorithm takes note and knows for next time. Or, better yet, entirely customised video content for us. Want the show or the movie you’re watching to end in a particular way? The algorithms could one day be so advanced, it can predict you’ll feel that way, and alter what you’re seeing and hearing to reflect that. And that’s perhaps not as much science fiction as only a few decade’s worth of research away:
(The video below contains some adult language and may not be suitable for work/school environments)
The Political Landscape
Some of the scarier aspects of this technology comes down to how it could be applied by both foreign governments with dictatorial regimes or even those in the democratic, globalised world. I’ll discuss some of my own personal, ethical concerns in the next section, but what about some of the more positive potential effects?
Well, just as in the medical and psychological industries, knowing what someone really thinks could be a real game changer. From both a practical point of view (who needs polls when we could just broadcast our thoughts?) and a more idealised one (would you really vote for someone when there was a 99.99% chance they are lying?) a shift in how we view leaders, representatives and policy makers could create a far more robust political system than ever before.
With my personal optimistic hat on, it could also produce politicians and leaders who are supremely culpable to their constituents and public opinion. Knowing that they would be subject to real thoughts and real opinions would, I like to think, create a new bread of politician: one with a focus on the people, not the organisations who fund their political parties, with a focus on results, not the popular policies that sound good on paper but are never planned to be put through, and with a focus on real ethics, not on what people seem to want in the here and now.
The Ethics of Real Mind-Reading
Oh boy, as if the neuroscience itself wasn’t complex enough, how do we deal with the ethical implications of really being able to read people’s minds?
We get asked a lot about the ethics behind what we do; is it ethical to trick people? Is it ethical if people think what we’re doing is real? How do you walk that line between entertainment and deception? For us, it’s always been about one thing:
Making sure people know what we’re doing is fake.
We do our best to make sure people know we’re magicians, that we never pretend to be psychic or supernatural, that we have no real powers and that anything we do can be replicated by understanding a few psychological principles.
When you’re looking into people’s minds, seeing what they’re seeing and genuinely listening to their inner thoughts though? That is no longer trickery. That’s not fake. And that’s where the biggest ethical concerns strike me.
I’m not the person to answer the questions behind real mind-reading, but I can certainly ask a few and air a number of our concerns:
- What would it mean if governmental bodies could access our inner-most thoughts? Would this create an Orwellian-esque system where we’re not only afraid to speak the truth, but merely to think the truth?
- What does this mean for advertisers and businesses? Would we see more of the type of social experiments that Facebook infamously ran? And whilst we’re on Facebook…
- What would this mean for Social Media? We’ve recently seen just how much data the technology giants hold on us, imagine if they had a way of penetrating and storing our thoughts?
- What would this mean for us as individuals? Would you pay to know what that certain someone really thought about you? And if so, how much? Would that not change every relationship we had, if our deepest, darkest secrets were just a 99p micro-transaction-on-an-app away?
- What would this mean for our jobs? Not only would we have a huge, nascent industry form in the wake of this change, but even something as common as lying on a CV or during a job interview could be found out immediately. HR and Organisational Development would change radically overnight.
- What does this mean for AI development? It’s a hot topic, and will be increasingly so over the coming decades, but how could a combination of machine-learning, artificial intelligence and genuine mind-reading be used by either organisations or governments to help or hinder their users or citizens?
The Psychological Artistry Kit
We are probably decades away from any of this appearing in our own homes and offices (which is probably for the best). That does not stop us, however, from teaching you ways to read other people’s minds right now. Our Psychological Artistry Kit is the perfect way of doing just that!
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