The Battle for Your Brain

Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology

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I picked up this book from Portsmouth Public Library based on a decent book review in the WSJ. It's mostly good, very thought-provoking and wide-ranging, and if you (like me) aren't up to speed with the latest developments in neurotechnology, it's eye-opening.

Starting with the obvious: what if there was a gadget that monitored your attentiveness to your job in your workplace? First instinct: a tad creepy, right? Ah, but what if your job was driving a train filled with hazardous chemicals through a populated area? Or a pilot with a plane full of innocent travelers? Then monitoring attentiveness might suddenly sound like a real good idea. (And there seems to be an actual product on the market that claims to do that.)

Ah, but it gets creepy again for those of us who work (or worked) in a cube farm. Is the manager going to get a spreadsheet reporting on what fraction of the workday his minions were "in the zone"? Or maybe having Unacceptable Thoughts about their attractive co-workers? Or…

It's enough to make you think about wearing a tinfoil hat.

The author, Nita Farahany, is a bioethicist and law professor at Duke. (But don't hold that against her.) Her prose is a little USA Today-ish, perhaps appropriate for her target audience. She tells personal anecdotes, one tragic.

Controversies in the neurotechnology field mirror, to a certain extent, the controversies swirling around AI. Dystopian scenarios are easy to imagine. Is it possible to "hack" peoples' brains, turning them into your willing slaves, while they maintain the illusion that they are still operating under their own free will? Think MK-ULTRA, except more subtle and effective.

A nice surprise: Farahany aims withering criticism at (some) paternalistic efforts to regulate technological innovation. Her prime example is the FDA's "cease and desist" letter to the DNA analysis firm 23andMe. An iffy precedent for medical information provided direct to consumers without being mediated by a licensed physician. Horrors!

As a libertarian, almost certainly more libertarian than Farahany, my gut instinct is that there's nothing wrong with neurotechnology that government regulation can't make worse, stifling innovation and research, while countries with far fewer scruples about human liberty and free thought continue their work in the field.

A few quibbles: Farahany talks a bit about "priming" research, without noting the difficulty people are having replicating key studies in the field. And a nagging question kept hopping into my brain: how much of this is hype? God bless them, but just about everyone here has strong incentives to play up current results and possible futures, for both good and ill. Businesses want to look good for investors. Government bureaucrats and politicians want to be seen as not only protectors of the little guy but also shrewd promoters of beneficial innovation. And Farahany and her publisher want to sell a lot of books.

But as long as you keep a grain of salt handy, this book is a very good intro to what's going on and possible futures, good and bad.

Last Modified 2024-01-12 6:04 AM EST