Mind reading machines have long been a standard feature in science fiction, but they are now (to a degree) a reality.
Scientists have found that by using a functional magnetic resonance imaging device (a form of MRI) they can determine, with a high degree of accuracy, what a person is thinking. Of course, the capabilities of the technology are still somewhat limited. For example, the scientists could tell whether the subject was thinking about a hammer as opposed to a pair of pliers. But, they presumably could not read the contents of this blog from my brain. At least not yet.
Naturally, this has numerous philosophical implications. Fortunately, philosophers have already thought a great deal about this matter.
When I discuss John Locke’s theory of personal identity, I always bring up the matter of the mind reading machine. Locke’s view is that personal identity is based on consciousness, so the same person=the same consciousness. Put crudely, if you truly remember something, then that was you.
Locke goes on to discuss the implications his theory has for punishment. He argues that if you do not remember doing X, then you did not do X. If X is a crime, then you would not be guilty of that crime. Locke does note that we cannot tell whether people truly remember or not, hence the courts convict based on the evidence available to them. Since God knows everything, God knows what is remembered or not-and hence God only punishes people for what they remember (and hence did).
When discussing this, I always mentioned that if a machine could be made that would read memories, then guilt and innocence could be determined-assuming, of course, that Locke’s theory is correct. Of course, when I talked about this in the past, such a machine was a mere theoretical possibility.
Now that the machine is a reality, it can be used for just such a purpose. We might very well see people being brain scanned during police investigations in order to determine what they remember. For example, if only the killer and the victim would remember certain details about a murder, then the machine could be used to test suspects.
While such usage as a crime fighting device might be laudable and while I generally like technology, when I read about these new capabilities provided by the fMRI in Newsweek (Page 22, January 2008 issue) I felt a chill. I have a rather active imagination and immediately thought of how this capability will be horribly abused and misused in the future.
It could be used to steal secrets from people (imagine a brain scanner that can work from a distance-which is certainly a theoretical possibility).
It could also be used to seek out dissidents in repressive states. In short, the device could become the means to break through what had been our last area of true privacy-our minds.
While this seems like a small thing, it could well be a breakthrough (or horror) on par with nuclear weapons-something that radically changes the nature of the world in nightmarish ways. Be afraid…but try not to think about it.
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