Guest Column

October 13, 2013

Neuroscience and the new assault on privacy

Recently, I came across a Reuters article with the headline: “U.S. scientist operates colleague’s brain from across campus,” which, as you may suspect, piqued my interest. 

All sorts of wonderful and horrible fantasies were triggered, ranging from professors being able to lecture to their classes without preparation, to students taking exams for each other. However, after actually reading the content, which began with the claim that they had achieved the first “mind-meld,” I found a much more mundane but still potentially exciting scenario.

Scientist A, wearing a cap with electrodes, was sending his brain’s electrical signals to a colleague on the other end of campus. His colleague, scientist B, wearing a similar cap, received the signals directed to the left-motor cortex, which controls right-hand movement. When scientist A imagined moving his right hand to press a space bar on his keyboard, scientist B involuntarily moved his right index finger in response. While this hardly qualifies as a bona fide “Star Trek” mind-meld, the scientists are hopeful that this technology, when fully developed, could be used productively using the example that “it might one day be harnessed to allow an airline pilot on the ground help someone land a plane whose own pilot is incapacitated.”

As I previously mentioned, this aroused my interest, and further research led to an interesting destination on the Web where one can view a two-part video hosted by Alan Alda (Hawkeye himself). Actually Alda’s presentation is excellent, combining thoughtful interview and analysis on a well-constructed PBS video with just a soupçon of mischief.

The premise of this video is a mock trial of an attempted robbery and shooting that raises questions about the law, neuroscience and privacy. As the trial progresses, Alda breaks in to examine a new technique in neuroscience that raises privacy issues particularly in the law profession.

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