Corlett Novis
Jul 30, 2018 · 3 min read
Electrodes being used to read the brain’s electrical signals

The future of technology has tantalised the human imagination for hundreds of years. Often this has involved romantic and optimistic dreams of Utopian cities, flying cars, hover boards and space travel, but occasionally it has been the breading ground for some of mankind’s darkest nightmares. Eerie visions of digital prisons, horrifying stories of engineered mutants and terrifying tales of killer robots are as present in our shared cultural heritage as our technological dreams and fantasies.

The overall lesson is relatively simple. Technology represents both an opportunity and a threat and, as of last month, one of mankind’s most surreal dreams has started to become a reality. But will it prove to be more like a fantasy or a nightmare?

••••••• 01110000 01101111 01110111 01100101 01110010 •••••••

“The long-sought dream of wearable and mobile devices that will interpret, replicate and influence people’s emotions and perceptions will soon be a reality thanks to a collaboration between the University and Nokia Bell Labs.”

The University of Cambridge, UK

This extract has come out of an article from Cambridge and was tagged as philanthropy. So lets start there.

One of the most one-sided assumptions we can make about technology is that it will always benefit mankind, but this is patently absurd. We can look back to the naive exuberance over the splitting of the atom in 1938 as a good example of this. To many at the time it seemed like a triumph, but as we know today, it also ended up creating the most destructive and horrifying weapon on the earth: the Atomic Bomb.

On the other hand, this isn’t to say that this “wearable and mobile” technology will be all bad. Similar technology, often referred to as Brain-Computer Interface or BCI, has existed for a good while and has contributed to healthcare by helping to repair brain functions through methods like Neural Interface Training. Cambridge & Nokia Bell’s new technology may have all kinds of benefits like the ability to help Autistic people deal with their surroundings and helping to monitor individual mental health, but this doesn’t justify Cambridge’s blindly optimistic tone. There are risks to this kind of technology as well.

Perhaps the key point in the article comes from Markus Hofmann (of Nokia Bell Labs) who mentions:

“[our goal is] to enable the long-distance exchange of people’s emotions and perceptions, to augment and improve the human experience in a digitally connected world.”

If the idea of having your thoughts uploaded, stored, interpreted and controlled doesn’t sound like a good idea then you aren’t alone. The ethical dilemma’s of monitoring and controlling thoughts are well documented in novels like Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange (which was also an iconic film).

••••••• 01110000 01101111 01110111 01100101 01110010 •••••••

In a strange and eerie way, none of this is necessarily new. Cambridge Analytica has already demonstrated a shocking capacity to build psychological profiles and influence people’s thoughts via political opinions in countries like Mexico, the USA, the United Kingdom and India and has even participated in secret campaigns in Kenya. This effective and deeply immoral manipulation has all been done without even requiring the kind of tech previously discussed. So far, they’ve only needed to opperate in terms of survey results, demographic analysis and Facebook data.

But with this kind of tech in existence, companies like Cambridge Analytica could do even worse. Directly monitoring, interpreting, uploading and “influencing” voters minds could be the greatest and most un-democratic tool of all time.

This isn’t even to mention the capacity for hacking. Like any other computer system, this next gen Brain-Computer Interface technology could have even more insidious and deeply harmful effects.

••••••• 01110000 01101111 01110111 01100101 01110010 •••••••

It is difficult to phrase the issue any better than former TIME, LIFE, and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan who once noted that

“Every time there’s a new tool, whether it’s Internet or cell phones or anything else, all these things can be used for good or evil. Technology is neutral; it depends on how it’s used.”

Whether this tech will be used for “good or evil” remains to be seen, but one thing is very much certain: humanity has a deep capacity for both.

Meaning of the Method

Stories investigating the sciences

Corlett Novis

Written by

Editor at Pi Media (London) interested in Science and Technology and how they interact in wider society and culture.

Meaning of the Method

Stories investigating the sciences

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade