Mind-reading tech? How private companies could gain access to our brains

"…While social media’s algorithms sometimes appear to “know” us in ways that can feel almost telepathic, ultimately their insights are the result of a triangulation of millions of recorded externalized online actions: clicks, searches, likes, conversations, purchases and so on. This is life under surveillance capitalism.

As powerful as the recommendation algorithms have become, we still assume that our innermost dialogue is internal unless otherwise disclosed. But recent advances in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, which integrates cognitive activity with a computer, might challenge this.

In the past year, researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to translate directly from brain activity into synthetic speech or text by recording and decoding a person’s neural signals, using sophisticated AI algorithms.

“We have already reached a point where analysts at social media companies can use online data to make reliable guesses about pregnancy or suicidal ideation,” he said.

“Once consumer BCIs become widespread and we have enough brain recordings in the digital eco-system, this incursion into parts of ourselves that we thought were unknowable is going to be even more pronounced.”

For some, however, the development of BCI technology is not only about the potential consumer applications, but more profoundly about merging humans with machines. Elon Musk, for example, has said that the driving impetus in starting his own BCI company, Neuralink, which wants to weave the brain with computers using flexible wire threads, is to “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence”.

Adina Roskies, professor of philosophy at Dartmouth University, says that while such a “cyborg future” might seem compelling, it raises thorny ethical questions around identity and moral responsibility. “When BCIs decode neural activity into some sort of action [like moving a robot arm] an algorithm is included in the cognitive process,” she explained. “As these systems become more complex and abstract, it might become unclear as to who the author of some action is, whether it is a person or machine.”"

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