Forget Media Manipulation And Misinformation via TikTok And Twitter, Neurotechnology Heralds The New Battle For Our Brains

Forget Media Manipulation And Misinformation via TikTok And Twitter, Neurotechnology Heralds The New Battle For Our Brains

For some time I have been forecasting the growing trend of “neuro rights”. There has been a burgeoning interest in technology that can access our minds and with it more opportunities to monitor, analyse and perhaps even manipulate our cognitive functions. But what personal protections, if any, do we have? It’s something I discuss in my own book, The Future of You, mainly from the point of view of neurotech altering the ‘self’, asking whether in the future we will be able to retain any sense of autonomy over our own identity?

But there is a new book out that covers neurotech and the ethical and legal questions surrounding it, in more scientific and legal detail. It delves into the many areas where this kind of new science comes up against civil liberties and other rights that we currently enjoy as human beings. It’s called The Battle For Your Brain: Defending The Right To Think Freely In The Age of Neurotechnology, authored by Nita A. Farahany, legal ethicist and Law Professor at Duke University.

On Tuesday evening I attended a webinar where Farahany introduced the themes of her book and where she was joined by a panel that included Ahmed Shaheed from the University of Essex, Jules Polonetsky from the Future of Privacy Forum and Daniel Solove, founder of Teach Privacy, who facilitated the discussion.

Farahany explained that she had been following neuroscience and neurotechnology for about a decade and had been closely watching the ways in which these new technologies were being utilised in the US legal system, in particular how they could be used to interrogate suspects. And she realised that there were wider implications for society itself, that went beyond the field of law. It was when she saw a presentation, about the integration of neural senses into a watch, that she realised technology companies were looking at ways to become the “fit-bits for our brains” in the service of decoding brain activity. She started to worry about the risks to privacy and the even greater risks to our freedom of thought.

Her journey into this area seems similar to mine (albeit she is approaching it from the legal field and myself from a more generalist futurology perspective) and our appraisals of the pros and cons of these advancements also align to an extent. There are many positive implications for individuals and public health services in being able to monitor brain activity, brain health and the potential uses in research and development. There are even some positives in the work environment.

Farahany talked about the use of brainwave monitoring being integrated into hard hats and train conductor caps in order to study the wearers for fatigue levels, or attention deficit, many wearers being scored from one to five for drowsiness. Other panellists highlighted that in China, train conductors already wear sensors embedded in their hats. It became clear that truckers, pilots and miners were already subject to this new technology. However, questions remain about what happens to the raw brain data being collected, although it was pointed out that companies using this technology are keen to impress that they do not keep this data.

The question arises though, “what next?”

The discussion turned to future implications including the integration of tech into brain wellness programmes whereby employers may be looking at decreasing stress levels for workers through cognitive games, and maybe at a future point will want to detect any deterioration in mental capacities. This opens up the potential for completely novel forms of discrimination in the workplace, and that is a real fear. I have seen research into the future of work suggesting that today, age discrimination is felt to be an even bigger issue than discrimination based on race, gender and sexuality. Accessing and scoring the cognitive functions of older employees could well exacerbate that trend.


At the other end of the age spectrum, we should be worried about the monitoring of school children. In the webinar, a wide ranging conversation on the potential justifications for monitoring what kids are doing or thinking, covered the possibility of attempting to predict who might become a school shooter, or do other harm to their classmates. The point was made that in highly complex but tragic situations that don’t seem to offer simple solutions, technology can be reached for just to be seen to be doing something. However, it is not always appropriate.

But the most interesting part of the conversation from my point of view was the discussion about how neurotech affects our identities. The future school that might be wishing to use neurotechnology to monitor children in class, could end up outing children who are exploring the world in their efforts to better understand it. As the panellists pointed out, a child searching hate terms, or asking Siri about issues of sexuality, or delving even deeper into whatever subjects might feel taboo at the time, might just be exploring who they are, or might become, and who others around them really are. Why should parents and teachers get to monitor their feelings and attempt to detect their emotional state, and thereby limit explorations in the journey of the self? Surely, at the very least, it would require their consent?

How does a young person subjected to this kind of personal surveillance react or shape themselves over time? That is to say, how will knowing you are being watched, especially at a cognitive and emotional level, affect or restrict the flourishing of a whole generation?

Of course, the most frightening aspect of all is ultimately mental manipulation, the stuff of many a science fiction novel. But as science fiction becomes reality, questions over how much of this technology will be integrated into marketing and propaganda need to be addressed. Farahany made the point that technology companies are already shaping our brains via their studies on how we use the ‘like’ button, or our reactions to prompts for what to watch next on streaming services, or even investigations into the brain heuristics that help to spread misinformation. The slippery slope from persuasion to manipulation could certainly be aided by this technology and I might even argue that we already see that through state-sponsored bot activity on social media, the sort that manipulates our minds to more readily participate in all kinds of modern warfare.

The discussion was rich in expertise and wide ranging in implications, and begs the question, what are we to do about this? At last month’s World Economic Forum Farahany reiterated what she proposes in the book, which is “a right to cognitive liberty”. A right to people’s self-determination over their own brains and mental experiences should be the default, she argues. In addition, two other rights: the right to freedom of thought, and the right to mental privacy.

That’s all very well but I think governments need to go further, which is why I have spoken before about what is happening in Chile where lawmakers are proposing legislation designed to establish a citizen’s rights to personal identity, free will, and mental privacy, ensuring overall that neurotechnology cannot be used to infringe a person’s mental or physical integrity. By giving brain data, “organ status” it is hoped that opting in to any procedures or processes that collect brain data, will provide some protection. I confess that I do not know the latest status of this piece of legislation and whether it has yet successfully been through the Chilean Parliament.

However, what is clearer than ever, is that the brain is the new battleground for humanity. And regardless of what governments do or don’t do, to regulate technologies or protect citizens, it will be the responsibility of each and every one of us to now think about how we are going to protect our own brain.

The Battle For Your Brain: Defending The Right To Think Freely In The Age Of Neurotechnology by Nita A. Farahany, is out in the US in March 2023, and available in the UK from April 2023.


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