In a recent Q & A interview, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described his vision of a world where we will one day be able to share our thoughts directly, by merely thinking them, rather than having to type or swype or speak them to share them with others. Facebook’s innocuous prompt – “What’s on your mind?” – takes on a whole new meaning in that context.
On one level, mind-to-computer data transfer seems like the logical progression as we search for better, faster and more convenient ways to input information to our machines. On another, it brings many technical challenges and ethical questions – as well as complicated emotional reactions. Whether you find the possibilities exciting or terrifying (or both), it’s something that ambitious innovators are working on already. In this post, I want to explore my own feelings about such a technology and perhaps motivate you to examine your own.
To quote Zuckerberg, “Our lives improve as our communication tools get better in many ways.” Who can argue with that? I certainly can’t dispute that modern technology has improved my life. Thanks to 4G and almost ubiquitous wi-fi, I can stay in touch with my family members no matter where I am. The specter of a broken down car leaving me or a loved one stranded on a lonely road for hours with no way to call for help is practically a thing of the past. I’m able to work from home, on an airplane, on a cruise ship or almost anywhere else instead of being cooped up in an office.
I love technology and I look forward to even more progress in technological capabilities and ease of use in the future. I’m eager for someone to get the “wearable tech” thing right, to free my hands from carrying my phone. I defended Google Glass, despite its limitations and lack of aesthetic appeal, when so many were hating on it. While all new inventions, from fire and the wheel up to nuclear physics and the Internet, can be used for either good or bad purposes, I tend to focus on the positive potential. Sometimes, though, we hear about research that makes you wonder if one day technology will go too far.
Some people believe we’ve already passed that point. That ubiquitous connectivity, webcams everywhere, and devices that hold so much personal information about us, have stripped us of our basic human privacy and thus of some of our humanity.
Many believe we’re still on the edge – but that the kind of technology Zuckerberg enthused about in the link above will push us over.
Computers that can directly read our thoughts: the whole thing sounds like a sci-fi fantasy, but then, 200 years ago my ancestors would never have believed that one day we’d be sending “moving pictures” through the air in the form of television transmissions, and my own grandparents never dreamed of a day when a ten-year-old could type out a comment and instantly share it with hundreds or thousands of people all across the globe. As Arthur C. Clark said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – and magic, fascinating as it may be, is also scary.
When I broached this subject to a group of friends – via social media, appropriately enough – immediate reactions were mostly negative. Some even called it “dangerous.” Although Zuckerberg clearly states “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like” [emphasis added], most of my friends seemed to overlook or discount those last three words. The assumption seemed to be that we would have no control over which thoughts we share. Several made statements along the lines of “not every thought we have should be shared” and “I refuse to have [my thoughts] taken from me.”
I’m not sure where that assumption comes from. Not infrequently, I type a sentence or a whole long essay into that comment box on Facebook and then I read it, think about it, and delete it without posting. Facebook has never once grabbed it and posted it against my wishes before I hit the “Post” or “Enter” button/key. Why does everyone think that it wouldn’t work exactly the same with thought input? I might do more of that deleting because it’s easier and faster to get those words into the box, but I have no reason to think I wouldn’t still have control over whether it actually goes out there to my friends are not.
Other comments expressed the idea that “The less human interaction we have face to face with live conversation the less human we become.” This is another concern that I understand, and yet the comment was made by someone I met online and with whom I have never yet had a face-to-face conversation, but we’ve become friends through Facebook. Without it, we wouldn’t know each other at all.
I don’t believe thought input would substantially change the amount of online vs. real world interactions that we have – but I could be wrong. Are there a lot of people who don’t use social media much because typing is too difficult and who would use it instead of in-person meetings much more frequently if they were able to just think their words onto the screen? Maybe … but we now have voice input that makes it easier and faster to enter our thoughts into our apps than the keyboard, which was itself an improvement over laboriously scrawling down our ideas in longhand. I didn’t hear any of these fears voiced in relation to those incremental steps.
One friend noted that her feelings about the technology are different when she takes Facebook out of the equation, and it’s a good observation. I think of this subject in much broader terms than just Facebook, and I’m pretty sure Zuckerberg wasn’t implying that it would be exclusive to social networking. I’m thinking about how great it would be to be able to instantly record some of the “brilliant” (at least they seem so at the time) thoughts that occur to me sometimes when I’m in the shower, when I’m driving, when I’m just about to drop off to sleep at night – all those times when my mind is relatively relaxed and ideas come most freely, but which ironically are the times when it’s the most difficult to get to a device and capture them in their entirety so I’ll have them later.
Not all of my friends view the possibility of thought input as alarming. One pointed out that “All communication technology advances have decreased the amount of time it takes to convey thoughts – from glyphs to books to telephones and so on. This is just the next logical progression as we find faster and more integrated ways to communicate.”
Then there are some, such as my husband the neurologist, who don’t believe it’s even possible. He says the practical challenge of ever being able to capture brain activity and read minds in so granular a fashion (that is, in actual words), as opposed to broad generalities such as what we’re thinking about or whether we’re feeling positive or negative emotions, is in his opinion insurmountable. He could be right. I feel the same way about time travel – but I also know there are many very brilliant people who believe both can and eventually will be done.
Whether or not it comes to pass, it makes for an interesting discussion. Although some try to make it out to be, I don’t believe it’s a question of whether it’s “right” or “wrong,” in itself. It would only be one tool; the moral and ethical issues have to do with what you do with it. Ultimately it’s like any other technology. It could be used for such wonderful things, enable us to reach new heights – or it could be used by the power-hungry to control us and oppress us, just as the power released by the splitting of the atom can be used to provide clean and relatively inexpensive energy or it can be used to kill and destroy.
As for me: yes, the implications of how thought detection could be misused in the hands of the government, the advertising industry and others with their own interests at heart scares me. But I also can’t wait to get my own hands – or rather, mind – on it. I almost salivate at the thought of how much more writing I could get done with it. I have so many books and article ideas, and so little time. And just think: no, carpal tunnel syndrome, ever again.