Studying ethical questions as the brain’s black box Is unlocked

Excerpt from The New York Times
December 18, 2012
MRI Head

Machines that read thoughts (credit: Wellcome Images)

S. Matthew Liao, director of the bioethics program at New York University, has a singular title: neuroethicist.

Some researchers claim to be near to using fMRIs to read thoughts. Is this really happening?

The technology, though still crude, appears to be getting closer. For instance, there’s one research group that asks subjects to watch movies. When they look at the subject’s visual cortex while the subject is watching, they can sort of recreate what they are seeing — or a semblance of it.

Similarly, there’s another experiment where they can tell in advance whether you’re going to push the right or the left button. On the basis of these experiments some people claim they’ll soon be able to read minds. Before we go further with this, I’d like to think more about what it could mean. The technology has the potential to destroy any concept of inner privacy.

Lately, you’ve been writing about this question: Do people own their memories? Most of us think, “Of course we do.” Why are you bringing this up?

Because there are some new technologies coming where we may be able to enhance cognition and memory with implanted chips. Right now, if you work for a company, when you quit, your boss can take away your computer, your phone, but not your memory. Now, when we come to a point when an employee gets computer chip enhancements of their memory, who will own it? Will the chip manufacturer own it as Facebook owns the data you upload on their products at present?

Even today, some people claim that our iPhones are really just extensions of our minds. If that’s true, we already lack ownership of that data. Will a corporate employer own the chip and everything on it? Can employers selectively take those memories away? Could they force you to take propranolol as a condition of employment so that you don’t give away what they define as corporate secrets?