Monday, July 17, 2017

Silicon Valley Wants Inside Your Head—Literally

A recent article in the engineering professional's magazine IEEE Spectrum reveals that several powerful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are sponsoring initiatives to breach the barrier separating our brains from the rest of the world.  They all fall into the category of "brain-computer interfaces" or BCIs. 

For example, Facebook wants to develop a noninvasive (meaning you don't need surgery to wear it) system that would let you type five times faster on your smart phone than you do now.  A former Facebook executive named Mary Lou Jepsen is trying to develop an MRI-type device that will "interpret the patterns of neural activity associated with thoughts"—mind-reading, in other words.  Elon Musk, true to form, has thrown caution to the winds with his program to implant a sensor in your brain, bypassing the old-fashioned eyes, ears, and fingers and mainlining the Internet straight to your hippocampus, or wherever the thing will be attached. 

There are two things I'd like to say about these projects.  One is technical, and the other is moral.

The technical aspects of BCI projects are daunting, to say the least.  While some research has been done already into ways of communicating with the brains of people with "locked-in" syndrome (e. g. sufferers from Lou Gehrig's disease who can no longer move any voluntary muscles), progress has been slow and the systems have been customized to each individual.  The brain is the final frontier of biology, in that it is the most complex organ known and probably the one we know the least about in comparison to what there is to know—which, in a sense, is all human knowledge, since all human knowledge is, materially speaking, contained in brains.  The self-reflexive nature of brain research makes me wonder if there isn't something analogous to Gödel's incompleteness theorems at work in the brain's attempt to understand how the brain works. 

Mathematician Kurt Gödel showed in 1931 that every mathematical system of a certain complexity is bound to have statements in it that cannot be either proved or disproved without going outside the system.  The brain analogy of this is that the brain may not be able to understand exhaustively everything about itself. 

Whether or not that is the case is a purely speculative question at this point—just the kind of issue that the Silicon Valley types are not interested in.  They want to do something with the brain, not understand it, and their research is way toward the development end of R&D, with explicit timelines and the whole apparatus of high-tech development programs favored by those with essentially infinite amounts of cash.

What a contrast it is to the way some wealthy corporations used to behave.  Physicist Mark P. Mills points out in a recent article in the journal New Atlantis that U. S. corporations spend only about 7% of their total R&D money on basic research, which the government's Office of Management and Budget defines as "study directed toward fuller knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts without specific applications toward processes or products in mind."  Mills makes the telling point that while the basic-research labs of the old pre-breakup Bell System and IBM can count thirteen Nobel Prizes to their credit, the free-spirited pursuit of knowledge wherever it leads is no longer in favor in the U. S. corporate world.  Though the lag between a discovery and the awarding of a Nobel Prize can often be decades, Mills looks in vain for any comparable scientific achievements from the tightly-application-focused "moon-shot" projects currently favored by Silicon Valley.

The technical point here is that those pursuing BCIs may have bitten off more than they can chew, and the nature of the problem might require a longer-term, less focused perspective.  Even if the goal of brain-computer interfaces is worthy of pursuit, we may be in for a long marathon instead of a sprint.

Now for the moral issue.  Is it right to read another person's mind?  Especially if they are not fully aware of what is involved in the process?  Ah, the corporations say, we would never do such a thing without your consent.  Yes, I reply, the same kind of consent I give whenever I load a new piece of software on my computer and lie that I have read and understood eight pages of legal gobbledegook when I click the button that will let me load the software. 

We have already been trained to allow snooping at a scale that twenty years ago would have been regarded as outrageous.  Everyone who gets online has probably had the experience of doing a web search for a consumer item in one place, only to find ads for it popping up later during a completely unrelated activity.  A combination of cookies and data-sharing among Internet companies on a grand scale means that privacy, at least when it comes to things you search for online, is mostly a thing of the past. 

Should we let the greedy hands of the Internet reach into the last remaining sanctuary of privacy, the human mind itself?  I am reminded in this connection of a passage in one of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  In it one of the English children transported to Narnia is named Lucy, and at one point she is alone in a magician's house, perusing a great book of magic.  She comes upon a spell "which would let you know what your friends thought about you."  She says the magic words, and a kind of television process shows her two friends of hers in a train.  She hears them talking about her, and not in a nice way, either. 

A bit later, Aslan the Lion appears, and says to her, "Child. . . I think you have been eavesdropping."  When she replies that she didn't think it counted as eavesdropping if it was magic, he replies "Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way."  I don't know how popular the Chronicles are in Silicon Valley, but it's just possible that a moral lesson a child could understand needs to be taught to some of our most powerful technical leaders.

Sources:  The IEEE Spectrum article "Silicon Valley's Latest Craze:  Brain Tech" by Eliza Strickland appeared on pp. 8-9 of the July 2017 print issue.  The Spring 2017 edition of The New Atlantis carried Mark P. Mills' article "Making Technological Miracles" on pp. 37-55.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Gödel's incompleteness theorems and the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory.  Lucy's exploit with magic is found on pp. 131-135 of the Macmillan paperback edition of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, originally copyrighted 1952.

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