Neurotechnologies are “dual-use” tools, which means that in addition to being employed in medical problem-solving, they could also be applied (or misapplied) for military purposes.
The same brain-scanning machines meant to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease or autism could potentially read someone’s private thoughts. Computer systems attached to brain tissue that allow paralyzed patients to control robotic appendages with thought alone could also be used by a state to direct bionic soldiers or pilot aircraft. And devices designed to aid a deteriorating mind could alternatively be used to implant new memories, or to extinguish existing ones, in allies and enemies alike. […]
In 2005, a team of scientists announced that it had successfully read a human’s mind using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that measures blood flow triggered by brain activity. A research subject, lying still in a full-body scanner, observed a small screen that projected simple visual stimuli—a random sequence of lines oriented in different directions, some vertical, some horizontal, and some diagonal. Each line’s orientation provoked a slightly different flurry of brain functions. Ultimately, just by looking at that activity, the researchers could determine what kind of line the subject was viewing.
It took only six years for this brain-decoding technology to be spectacularly extended—with a touch of Silicon Valley flavor—in a series of experiments at the University of California, Berkeley. In a 2011 study, subjects were asked to watch Hollywood movie trailers inside an fMRI tube; researchers used data drawn from fluxing brain responses to build decoding algorithms unique to each subject. Then, they recorded neural activity as the subjects watched various new film scenes—for instance, a clip in which Steve Martin walks across a room. With each subject’s algorithm, the researchers were later able to reconstruct this very scene based on brain activity alone. The eerie results are not photo- realistic, but impressionistic: a blurry Steve Martin floats across a surreal, shifting background.
Based on these outcomes, Thomas Naselaris, a neuroscientist at the Medical University of South Carolina and a coauthor of the 2011 study, says, “The potential to do something like mind reading is going to be available sooner rather than later.” More to the point, “It’s going to be possible within our lifetimes.”