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BLOG: The technology to read your mind

AvantiKumar | Aug. 16, 2013
The technology for assessing thoughts is just over the horizon and could well sound the final death knell for privacy - though it is debatable whether we ever really had it.



In a recent article in The Atlantic on functional MRI (fMRI), a tool used to assess brain activity changes, it was mooted that such a technology could be used to "infer information regarding who we are thinking about, what we have seen and the memories we are recalling."

The technology to 'infer thought' from mapping brain activity is evolving ahead of the legal, social and political considerations of mind-reading machines. In the US last year, one man on trial for murder attempted to use fMRI-based lie detection results to prove that the death was due to a suicide. This attempt was rejected by the court. Meanwhile a year earlier, in another case, the court decided to exclude fMRI lie detection results as it was not convinced that the process could even be tested never mind whether it could actually detect "real lies".

However, it is only a matter of time before more widely-accepted brain scanning methods are available for use both by prosecutors and defendants. Of course, another consideration is whether computing technology can mimic the brain's capacity for perception, action, and thought. Let's remember the human brain works slowly at low precision and yet has no difficulty with recognising, interpreting, and acting upon patterns while using only the same power as a 20 watt light bulb with the volume of a two-litre bottle.

Undaunted, IBM is working on a programming architecture for chips modelled after the human brain. "Architectures and programs are closely intertwined and a new architecture necessitates a new programming paradigm,' said Dr Dharmendra Modha, the principal investigator for the project at IBM Research, told a Daily Mail reporter. 'While complementing today's computers, this will bring forth a fundamentally new technological capability in terms of programming and applying emerging learning systems."

Back to our simple question: could defendants be forced by warrant to undergo tests to prove their innocence or guilt? As US-based professor of law Dov Fox wrote in a  2009 law review article, "Brain imaging is difficult to classify because it promises distinctly testimonial-like information about the content of a person's mind that is packaged in demonstrably physical-like form, either as blood flows in the case of fMRI, or as brainwaves in the case of EEG."  He suggests that the compelled use of brain imaging techniques would "deprive individuals of control over their thoughts" and be a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Unfortunately, many nations have not clarified their stand on individual privacy, never mind making provision to secure such a right. What do you think? 

- AvantiKumar, Editor Computerworld Malaysia & Malaysia Country Correspondent for CIO Asia, MIS Asia



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