Mind reading computers… we all knew this kind of technology was coming along, but did anyone really think they’d get the correlations between brain waves/localised activity and intention/meaning so quickly? And, have they really? Will they ever? From a stub article in The Age newspaper today:

A TEAM of world-leading neuroscientists has developed a powerful technique that allows them to look deep inside a person’s brain and read their intentions before they act.The research builds on a series of recent studies in which brain imaging has been used to identify tell-tale activity linked to lying, violent behaviour and racial prejudice.

The latest work has prompted the researchers to call for an urgent debate on the ethical issues of the technology.

Here’s the original UK Guardian article and a nice comment on Slashdot.

Now, while I agree with the urgent need for debates on the ethical issues involved, I have to wonder first, if the technology is really that good? Is this just another form of behavioural cues that so many people think they master, and then soon find out don’t generalise so well?

While there are some fixed biological actions associated with certain types of brain activity, ie more creative thought, accessing long term memory etc, some people can hold their eyes perfectly still and perform all kinds of mental functions, and, more to the point, just because I’m activating ‘creative’ thinking functions doesn’t mean I’m lying. I could simply be trying to figure out how to best explain a complex topic to a moron, or more often, how to translate a politically sensitive issue into a value-schema language that the recipients of the communications can a) hear and b) not have too much of a knee-jerk reaction to. In both cases no lying, but a clear need to engage creative thinking. Funny that if you want to access a human’s interiority, their subjective space, you need to use methods based in that domain. You could, you know, just ask someone what’s going on. And if their lying, an experienced psychologist is all you’ll need to spot it, not some machine worth tens of thousands of dollars that’s not able to come near to touching meaning.

The ready arrogance of empirical researches often astounds me. But then, I realise its often not intentional. They just don’t know any better. With their material blinkers on, presumably unaware of self-reflective thought and in a worldview where meaning making is automatic and thus unaware of the whole post-modern turn of the last half century, who can blame them for thinking they have the physical signature of all thoughts – and thus can read them like a book.

I suspect, however, that their very success will lead some of them to realise that they are really reading tea leaves, and thus, are far away from being able to develop reliable implementations of such technology. Although…. On the other hand, maybe most people are like them, and thus quite predictable. Maybe the only time a redneck jackass video making young man is being creative is when he’s lying or thinking naughty thoughts. Reason enough to convict him either way isn’t it?

I wonder what these scientists think of the old dictum updated: actions speak louder than thoughts, or walking your talk is what counts. If these cowboys ever get to walk their machine into the criminal justice system, heaven help us – I know I might be inspired to revolutionary thoughts – but then, so might they, and who’s machine could tell our thinking patters apart?