April 24, 2004
Richard Glen Boire On Threats To Cognitive Liberty

Richard Glen Boire of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics located in Davis, California is interviewed by New Scientist magazine on technological threats to cognitive liberty.

In the next five to ten years, we think drugs that enhance memory are going to raise important issues of freedom of thought. Will you have a right to say no to these drugs if you are the only eyewitness to a crime? Could a future government say: "It's very important that you remember what you saw. We want you to take this drug at least until after you have testified in court."

How would you like to be forced to maintain an accurate memory of, say, a murder you witnessed? That would be difficult but understandable. However, imagine you were forced to more accurately remember your own rape. At the very least use of a memory-boosting technology for that purpose would be an argument for speedier trials and should come with an optional ability to reduce the clarity of the memory once the trial was completed.

I have previously argued with Boire on the question of whether there is an unlimited right to erase one's memories. However, in a follow-up clarification post on his postion Boire acknowledged that the right to erase one's own memories should not be treated as unlimited regardless of circumstances.

Also, I should note that no right is "absolute." Not even something like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I'm perfectly willing to accept reasonable "time, place, and manner" type restrictions on cognitive liberty.

As the mind becomes more malleable to both memory erasure and false memory implant technologies such technologies will pose a serious problem regardless of the positions governments take over cognitive rights. The advent of date rape drugs demonstrate that, once again, governments have no monopoly on the ability or willingness to violate the rights of individuals. My greater concern for the future in Western societies is that the drugs that will be developed that alter and erase memories and change personalities will be illegally used by individuals against others without their knowledge.

We need effective technological defenses usable by ourselves against drugs and other technologies that alter our minds. Imagine, for instance, implanted sensors that would be able to signal us when the sensors detect drugs or other agents in our bodies. The ability to detect that we are under some form of cognitive attack would, for instance, allow a woman who has just consumed a date rape drug to call for help before losing consciousness. A really advanced implant would even be able to release counter-agents to block some or all of the effects of the cognitive state altering agents.

Boire is also concerned about a technology called brain fingerprinting offered by a company called Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories. The inventor of brain fingerprinting claims brain fingerprinting can detect whether a person is lying with far greater accuracy than a polygraph test.

Brain Fingerprinting, developed by Dr Larry Farwell, chief scientist and founder of Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories, is a method of reading the brain's involuntary electrical activity in response to a subject being shown certain images relating to a crime. Unlike the polygraph or lie detector to which it is often compared, the accuracy of this technology lies in its ability to pick up the electrical signal, known as a p300 wave, before the suspect has time to affect the output.

Boire's concern is that people could be compelled to take a brain fingerprinting test and that this would remove a person's right to remain silent. Keep in mind that in much (most?) of the world suspects and defendants do not have such a right in the first place. A technology for detecting deception therefore may not so much cause a violation of an existing right as it would cause the coercion of testimony to produce a more accurate result. Though if interrogation becomes much easier to use to produce accurate confessions one can expect at least some governments to make greater use of it.

As least in the West I see greater threats to cognitive liberty coming from actions of non-state actors than from governments. William Gibson' narrator in Neuromancer said something along the lines of "The streets find uses for things". Reflecting my own view of reality my misremembrance of that quote which I will now claim as my own is "The streets find their own uses for technology". In free societies those street uses of cognitive state-altering technologies are what I think we have the most to worry about.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 April 24 02:44 PM  Dangers Mind Engineering

Fly said at April 24, 2004 6:04 PM:

What if …?

The US captures a terrorist. Advanced neural tech is used to “convert” him into a US agent. No torture or conventional mistreatment is involved.

Is this “high tech brainwashing” morally different from the low tech, harsh methods used in some Madrassas to instill fanaticism?

At what level of total war, does the forced “conversion” of the enemy become acceptable?

What is a person? We are the product of biology and environment. An accident or disease can drastically alter personality and behaviour. There may be no innate person to “protect”.

Religion, schools, and advertising agencies attempt to mold minds. Do we accept this because their methods are seen as largely ineffective? Do we accept them because we’ve grown up with them and so they are seen as normal? Do we accept them because we agree that minds can be positively molded for the greater benefit of society?

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2004 8:28 PM:

Fly, Interesting premise. Kinda like The Manchurian Candidate.

If a fanatic could be turned in such a manner and turned quickly that would provide an incredibly powerful way to infiltrate terrorist networks. But if motivation could be changed so easily then interrogation alone would much more and much more accurate and very quickly too.

Possibly technology could be developed to detect mental tampering aimed at changing motivation. If motivation-changing technology existed then would the US would gain more than lose more from the existence of this technology? On the one hand, the US would be better positioned with resources to administer tests to detect changes in motivation. On the other hand, the US has more people in key positions working against the terrorists (or even just in positions that could be used against us by "turned" people) than the terrorists have working against the US. So the US has more people who can be turned against it and therefore a much bigger task of defending against people who are reprogrammed to be traitors.

Your question about religion, schools and advertising is excellent as well. The early results with brain scans and advertising suggest that advertising really is effective. There was one study (forget if I blogged on it) about how people got more pleasure drinking Coca Cola when they knew it was Coca Cola. Makes sense. The ads have built up all sorts of positive associations between drinking Coke and all sorts of other things. Knowledge that it is Coke triggers all sorts of pleasurable associations.

My guess is that as the effects of advertising become more precisely measured that there will be more resistance to exposure to ads. Look at my recent post about food and brain stimulation for example. An argument can be made that exposure to food is really a health problem given our evolutionary history.

Is noticing reality supporting the terrorists? said at August 28, 2007 10:43 AM:

"Brain fingerprinting" has flaws big enough to drive a truck through.

This so-called "brain fingerprinting" relies on whether a person has been exposed to particular data or stimuli before.

If someone wants to induce a "false positive" result, all they have to do is expose the testee to the data/stimuli before the test. Then at the test, the testee will test "positive" when RE-exposed to the data/stimuli.

This could be exploited by people ranging from corrupt cops holding a prisoner before testing, to murderers who might send you pictures of their crime's crime scene.

Why don't the journalists covering this ever seem to notice this?

"Brain fingerprinting" is a great bullshit self-promoting name, though.

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