I am fascinated by neuroscience and how our brains work. Neuroprosthetic research and products are already changing lives. Since 2010, cochlear implants have been fixed as neuroprosthetic devices to approximately 220’000 human heads worldwide, making them hear again. There are also several devices that aim to restore vision, including retinal implants. The first neuroprosthetic device, however, was the now unquestionably normal pacemaker.
Do you mind control or mind-control ?
I was struck by a presentation of Dr. Heather Berlin, an American neuroscientist and licensed clinical psychologist, about today's possibilities and research on Brain-Reading. Thought-Identification, as she rightly calls it, uses the electrical and therefore visible responses of multiple areas in the brain to get the whole picture. These responses are artificially evoked by known stimuli, such as images or sounds. After detection by Magnetic Resonance Imagery they can be decoded and attributed to the original stimuli. Dr. Berlin states that advances in her research have made it possible to read a person's conscious experiences based on non-invasive measurements of an individual's brain activity. Once a personal baseline was established, Berlin and her scientists were able to tell what test-persons were looking at or listening to without any access to what they were actually looking at or listening to. They were looking at live brain images and knew. This is equally fascinating, as it is scary.
All that information at hand, I can’t help but to think of Alex, the main character of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and his attempted rehabilitation by the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the "Ludovico Technique". In a time when selfless sharing and storing of personal data by private companies collide with increasingly blurred lines between physical and digital reality, deep fakes and the scientific knowledge to successfully read (and control) people's minds, the film’s crazy experimental psychological conditioning technique somehow plays on a different “reality” level today.
As I am writing these words images of Blade Runner and it’s sequel Blade Runner 2049 pop into my mind: Replicants versus Human Beings. Real memories versus implanted memories. What a mess...
science fiction or science facts
Descartes suspected there might someday be a need for a test of whether something was human or machine. “If there were machines bearing images of our bodies, and capable of imitating our actions as far as it is morally possible, there would still remain two most certain tests whereby to know that they were not therefore really men,” he wrote. He created two tests, which relied on linguistic ability and flexibility of behaviour (Boissoneault, 2017). Perfectly ok for his time, but useless for Osimo, Siri, Alexa or Erica. Today's replicants speak and behave just as humans do, meaning they would probably pass Descartes’ tests of humanity.
English philosopher John Locke, on the other hand, said that the continuity of one’s memories would give a person a sense of self. The human body changes with time, but memories remain, offering a foundation for a stable identity. “As far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought, so far reaches the Identity of that Person,” he wrote (ibid).
In the Blade Runner movies, replicants also have implanted memories, making them very difficult to distinguish from human beings. What a mess…
the only way is philosophy
Of course these are only movies and humans still haven’t managed to create anything close to a replicant, but questions about the nature of humanity and how we might treat androids, or whatever it may be, have important real-world implications. Questions such as, what should count as a being worthy of moral consideration need answers. Some apps, smart devices or robots may already look pretty human, or they’re cute and fluffy, so we think of them as adult toys, or they may look neat and “minimally tech”, so we think of them as productive extensions.
Education and digital transformation need to get deeply involved with philosophy. Educators and consultants need to confer with philosophers as there are no, and there won’t be any easy answers.
We’ll have to take on the work of entering an profound, inclusive and ethical discussion.
Unfortunately we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them, as Einstein so eloquently said.