TCS Daily

Would You Mind?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Lots of people are worried about where neuroscience might be taking us. And such worries, as I've written here before (and, in a way, here, too), are not necessarily unfounded. Being able to manipulate brains offers substantial possibilities for good, but also considerable latitude for abuse.

I'm not going to try to spell out what the answers are to these questions today. A comprehensive theory of neuroethics, if one is possible at all, won't be developed in a 600 word column. But I do have a framework that might be useful in thinking about these issues.

My experience from talking with journalists (and, in fact, it was such a conversation that inspired this column) is that people tend to think about these technologies as a sort of undefined lump. But, in fact, the kinds of technologies we're likely to worry about differ substantially, and so do the rules that might be applied to them. Here's my own three-part taxonomy, classifying the technologies and their problems:


We can't really read minds yet. But new technologies in brain scanning promise far more effective lie detection, unlike the clumsy and ineffective polygraphs that law enforcement has used (largely as a tool of psychological manipulation, since they really don't work) for years. But what if they did? The ramifications of an effective lie detector are considerable. One that was really 100% effective, or something close to it, would have dramatic effects on the criminal trial process. Innocents would be freed, as the "unbelievable" alibis turned out to be true (they are, sometimes). On the other hand, I suspect that far more guilty parties would be caught. And the real issue in being able to ask questions where you can really know whether the answers are truthful or not is when such questioning should be allowed, and on what subjects. For the opportunity to invade someone's privacy by asking them questions when lying is impossible -- or at least, fully detectable -- is immense. I suspect that the long-term effects of such a technology in the United States' legal system would be to weaken the rules against self-incrimination, but to strengthen controls on what questions can be asked, and by whom, and with what sort of public record.

To the extent that brain-scanning technology lets us go beyond simple lie detection, of course, the implications are far more serious. And according to a recent account in icBirmingham, there's some prospect that it might:

"Brain fingerprinting was developed by American scientist Dr Larry Farwell three years ago and uses a highly-sensitive scanner to look directly into the brain.

"Subjects are shown a series of photos, some relating to a crime scene or incident, and their brain waves are then measured by electrodes taped to the scalp.

"Psychologists claim it could be used in the UK to vet applicants for teaching jobs or to treat suspected paedophiles."

These claims may be hype (history suggests that to some degree they are) but sooner or later they're likely to be a truthful. Such an approach comes perilously close to making "thought crime" a reality. Does "presumed innocent" still apply when there's strong evidence that innocence is only the result of lack of opportunity? I would argue that it should, but I suspect that many people will see things differently.


We all practice crude forms of mind control already. By grooming and dressing ourselves in appealing ways, by learning to speak or act in particular fashions, etc., we try to influence the way others perceive us, and act toward us. Advertisers try to use sex, and other associations, to make products more appealing. As a society, we try, in varying ways and to varying degrees, to control the way that young peoples' minds develop, through indoctrination in school and control of material (like pornography) to which young people are exposed. More directly, millions of kids are subjected to more intrusive forms of mind control via drugs like Ritalin, etc., used to remedy patterns of behavior thought unacceptable in schools.

These methods are crude, and often ineffective. More modern technologies will not be, and in fact, the scanning technologies mentioned above are already pointing to things that may facilitate more sophisticated controls. What's worse, many of these forms of mind control might be undetectable, and perhaps even pleasant to the victim, much as many forms of addiction -- a kind of mind control in itself -- can be. A Clockwork Orange points to some of the issues that may arise.

Traditionally, methods of "mind control" used by the government have been optional, in a sense. The "penitentiary" was intended to reform criminals by inducing them to think of their crimes until they became, well, penitent, but it often fails. School indoctrination is notoriously inefficient. And parents who don't want their kids on Ritalin have the option of home-schooling. Will more effective tools be made less optional? Judging by the record of behavior-modification drugs in schools, that seems likely.

Mind-Copying and Mind-Editing

At the farther reaches of technical feasibility comes the ability to copy someone's mind into a computer, and run it as a digital file or program. People have been writing about "mind uploading" for years, and I've already written one column about the implications of such technologies. But there are many other questions. Would copies be as "real" as the original mind? Would killing a copied mind be murder? Or, if it was done by the original, would it be a form of suicide? (You can read some thoughts on this subject here and there's a collection of links here.)

And, of course, what can be copied and digitized can be edited. When would doing so be acceptable, and when would it be unspeakably awful and intrusive? (And what if you could overwrite the original mind with the new, edited version? Useful for therapy, but horribly dangerous if abused, as it surely would be.)

Each of these categories raises questions of its own, and we're likely to run into these problems more or less in this order, with problems of "mind reading" arising before problems of mind control or mind copying. It's important that we think about them now -- while we're still sure that the thoughts we're thinking are our own.


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