The Battle for Your Brain

From The Wall Street Journal:

The fantastical events and strange worlds that our minds concoct as we sleep—our dreams—have long been understood as a mysterious force of creativity, emotional expression and even subconscious desire. But did you know they are a potentially lucrative site for marketing beer?

In “The Battle for Your Brain,” Nita Farahany explores a new era of neurotechnology in which ever more sophisticated devices, for all sorts of reasons, are attempting to discover exactly what we’re thinking and why. The possibilities are both practical and utopian, thrilling and disturbing.

Neurotech, as Ms. Farahany notes, promises a future where drivers never fall asleep at the wheel because their devices alert them to their fatigue; where people who suffer from conditions like epilepsy can be warned of an impending seizure; and where people with neural implants can move objects using only the power of their thoughts.

But there is more to it than that, of course. Ms. Farahany, a professor of philosophy and law at Duke University, takes readers on a tour of companies creating devices—headsets, electrode-enabled earbuds and hats—for tracking the signals that our brains emit. The goal is to decode the signals with software, turning the data into information about everything from our real-time emotions to our unconscious urges. Dream researchers have been approached by companies—including Xbox and Coors—eager to use their findings to pursue “dream incubation” marketing: that is, to use sleep sensor technology to monitor the times when, during sleep, your brain is most suggestible to prompts, such as the brand of beer you should prefer when awake.In one experiment that Ms. Farahany describes, researchers were able to “steal” information from the brains of videogamers using a neural interface. The researchers “inserted subliminal images into the game and probed the players’ unconscious brains for reaction to stimuli—like postal addresses, bank details, or human faces.” By measuring the gamers’ responses, researchers were able to figure out one gamer’s PIN code for a credit card, no doubt opening up new vistas for future brain hackers.

In the here-and-now, however, wearable neurotech is already being used by employers to monitor their employees, enabling a far more granular level of surveillance than was possible before. Ms. Farahany argues that the power of new surveillance tools requires clearer rules about the technologies that serve a public interest—say, by monitoring brain fatigue in long-haul truckers—and those that invade a worker’s privacy, such as mandatory earbuds that measure mood and attention in the guise of promoting “wellness.”

When it comes to governments’ use of such tools, Ms. Farahany warns that a world where consumers embrace wearable neurotech is also one that could allow law enforcement and government agencies to harvest personal data—indeed, our very thoughts. Brain-computer interfaces currently under development by Meta and Elon Musk’s Neuralink, among others, promise to translate the activities of neurons into speech, effectively reading our minds. Should the government have access to those thoughts for the purposes of preventing crime? Are our thoughts considered part of our bodies, or can they be treated as something else?

Likewise, how much mental manipulation should we allow? We are already assaulted by constant advertising online that attempts to guide us to click away from whatever we are reading to purchase products. Is there a point beyond which such prompting and nudging should not go? Ms. Farahany quotes a dream researcher concerned that a lack of regulation might mean a future in which we “become instruments of passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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