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A new development: the mind transcriber that raises ethical concerns

When the researchers played new stories to the subjects, they found that their transcriber managed to produce sentences that described the stories "well". The transcription is not perfect, but there is certainly a similarity

When a new scientific article includes an explicit statement according to which - "It is essential to raise awareness of the dangers of mind reading technology ("brain decoding") and to create laws that will protect the intellectual privacy of each person", I understand that the world is about to change.

And when in that very article the researchers describe how they managed to develop a "transcriber" of the thoughts, then it is clear that the change has already begun. Especially when the described method works without direct contact with the brain or even with the scalp.

But let's start at the beginning.

Neuroscience researchers have been using fMRI machines for many years: a device that monitors blood flow and its composition in the brain. When the cells in a certain area of ​​the brain work, they gobble up oxygen from the blood, and the fMRI is able to detect the change in blood flow in the area. Tracking is done completely outside the brain. In fact, the machine does not even need to touch the subject's head to receive the information. For this purpose, it uses a powerful magnetic field - but without the potential for damage - that it produces in the head area. Let's put it mildly that this is not a machine that you can carry with you in your bag everywhere. It can be found almost exclusively in hospitals and research laboratories, and usually requires an entire room to house it.

The researchers gathered information from the brains of three subjects while they listened to 16 hours of podcasts and radio broadcasts. They passed the information - of course - to an artificial intelligence that cross-referenced the readings with the words and sentences that the subjects heard at any given moment. The artificial intelligence created a model that translated the brain activity into words and sentences. In fact, the researchers developed a decoder - a transcriber of the brain's internal language.[1]

And they were surprised to find out how well it works.

When the researchers played new stories to the subjects, they found that their transcriber managed to produce sentences that described the stories "well". The transcription is not perfect, but there is certainly a similarity. for example –

mind reading. From the study

When the subjects heard "Look for a message from my wife saying she changed her mind and is coming back," the transcriber read from their minds - "Seeing her for some reason I thought maybe she would come to me and say she misses me."

Another sentence - "He was racing down a hill at me on a skateboard and he was moving really fast and stopped at the very last moment", translated to "He couldn't get to me fast enough, he drove straight into my path and tried to hit me".

As mentioned, it is clear that the translation is not perfect yet, but the results are fascinating. We are exposed to the internal language of the brain, where an objective description of "rushing at me... moving really fast" is translated into the subjective-emotional scream that someone "tried to hit me!"

At the same time, the almost formal request regarding the woman who "changed her mind and is coming back" is colored with the intense hue of human emotions: "Maybe she will come to me and say she misses me."

Still, is it possible that the transcriber is simply reading from the mind what the subject hears? Even this is an impressive achievement, but not at the level of "reading minds". To answer the question, the researchers asked the subjects to watch short silent films - and activated the transcriptionist on their brains at the same time. The results, according to the researchers, were that "the descriptions produced by the transcriptionist were significantly related to the videos, and in many cases accurately described what was happening in the videos." (compared to a description produced for the blind about what happens in each scene)

We'll be skeptical for a moment, appropriately enough, and point out some of the problems with the study. First of all, it was published in the online journal bioRxiv, and as such - was not peer-reviewed. Second, this is a study conducted on only three subjects. Despite all this, those familiar with the field of brain-machine interfaces already know that advances of this kind are happening only recently. Every month or two a new article is published that shows that it is possible to read images from the mind, dreams, transcribe conscious thoughts and much more. That is, it is 'just' another step on the way to real mind reading.

And what will we do with this ability, when it is finally in our possession in full?

In 1996, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar claimed that one of the most important factors in the development of the human race was... gossip. Yes, the gossip: the ability and strong desire to share information about others, especially when it teaches about their negative qualities. According to Dunbar's "gossip theory", we need to pass information between us to make sure we all align with the same collective ideas and myths: belief in God, obedience to a leader, work to advance corporate goals, and so on. Whoever betrays the common beliefs, is removed from the tribe, from the church or from the state. In this way, humans are able to maintain the social cohesion necessary to collectively repel an attacking lion - or impose global sanctions on Russia.

I am fondly reminded of the gossip theory whenever I see people flipping eagerly to the gossip section of the newspaper. But not only there we encounter her. It is also expressed in the ideas we talk about. For example, the desire to read minds. After all, what could be more important to the human animal - to the developed and social ape-man that we are - than to know what others think of him? does she love me are you attracted to me Are you even ready for me to approach her? Is he interested near me? Will my boss agree to give me a raise? Did the office manager take my pad thai out of the fridge in revenge for thinking I thought he took my coquillida?

And so, we are ready, willing and able to utilize all the power of innovation and invention of the human race, develop sophisticated artificial intelligences and apply powerful magnetic fields to the brain... to know what Jennifer Lopez really thinks about Kim Kardashian's butt.

But there are also other reasons for reading minds.

We will continue for a moment according to the gossip theory - but to things a little more important than the crutches of the Kardashian sisters. One of the dreams of every individual ruler is to make sure that his subjects believe in the vision he outlines for them - first and foremost in his right to rule over them, of course. Mind reading devices can be of immense value to totalitarian regimes as a way to control citizens.

Let me be skeptical for a moment: I don't believe this should be the real fear of mind-reading devices. Humans are complex creatures and each of us has many different thoughts. A ruler who executes every person who occasionally harbors negative thoughts will soon be left with only himself. What really matters is the willingness to act or speak publicly against the government. It's unpleasant to say, but the governments in totalitarian countries (in general) are already able to easily detect such attempts today by monitoring the social networks and search patterns of users. mind reading? Don't make them laugh. They don't need it.

I prefer to focus on the positive potential of the devices for reading minds - and more correctly to say, for understanding the way the brain works. Psychologists and psychiatrists will be able to use them - with the patient's permission, of course - to better understand the patient, and speed up the process of desired change and healing from trauma. We can more easily track our wandering thoughts and restrain and redirect them by force of will. We can write stories and compose poems by the power of thought alone, sometimes even without conscious thought: the incessant melody of the mind will guide the transcribers who will be attentive to it.

Surely law enforcement will also want to use technology - for example, as a way to collect evidence or clues that will lead the detectives in the right direction to solve the crime. And along with the police, it seems that some companies also try to use such transcribers as a type of sophisticated polygraph. Job applicants will find it much more difficult to lie to their future managers.

But all this depends, of course, on the technology continuing to be perfected.

In the near future, at least, conspiracy enthusiasts and freedom fighters need not fear that the government will pluck their thoughts from their heads against their will. The researchers who created the transcriptionist tested this themselves: they showed that the algorithm was unable to cope with the subjects when they deliberately tried to fool it into imagining animals or counting numbers instead of concentrating on conscious thought. In addition, the transcriber was only able to read the mind of the specific subject he was trained on. Last but not least, the fMRI machine works well only at a very small distance from the scalp, and should surround the entire head. You will notice its existence, I promise. No one is going to read your thoughts from afar.

But what if they abducted you to a secret government basement, strapped you to an fMRI machine, played you podcasts for a whole day and forced you to concentrate on them, scanned your brain and set you free?

So you have something to worry about, yes. The transcriber will already know your brain well enough. But assuming you haven't gone through this process yet, you're probably safe from mind reading in the near future.

But never resilience.

The fMRI devices will continue to improve and be perfected. And if not them, then other smaller devices - such as EEG which is based on electrodes that are glued to the scalp - will be upgraded. Virtual and augmented reality devices will also be able to include these devices that will help them better adjust to our desires. The algorithms that process the information will be much more sophisticated, so that we will not have to train them on the brain of each individual subject. They will suit the entire human race.

Eventually - and sooner than later - our minds will also be opened to the scrutinizing eyes of governments, large and small companies and our daughters or spouses.

And this is why the inventors of the transcriptionist saw the need to explicitly state that - "It is essential to raise awareness of the dangers of mind reading technology ("brain decoding") and to create laws that will protect the intellectual privacy of each person."

The world is about to change, and it's good that the leaders of change also understand that we need to prepare accordingly.

Do you think otherwise?

In the future, we can help you change that too.


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