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The Future is Here (only you don’t know it yet.)

EEG Subject

There have been movies and books that depict a future where nothing can be hidden; where the authorities know everything about everyone. The 2002 movie Minority Report, based (as was BladeRunner) on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, featured a bureau of Precrime which allowed the police to arrest people prior to their actually committing a crime. The plot is complex and leaves the viewer with questions about the existence of free-will and a healthy fear of a government that can see everything.

At this point, you’re wondering if I’m going to be writing about the increasing surveillance in many countries. The answer is yes, but there are some things that you may not know.

The government of the United States is working hard at imposing a de-facto universal id based on federal requirements for state issued drivers licenses. Americans from non-complying states will not be able to board airplanes for even domestic flights without a federal passport within a few months. Their drivers licenses will be considered inadequate id for travel.

There is a huge and rapidly growing database of pictures of people’s faces that is instantly available to the authorities in many countries. This database will ultimately allow quick identification (and location) of anyone. We unwittingly contribute to the data by posting our pictures online and by exposing our faces to surveillance cameras (both stationary and drone-based) when we go out. Meanwhile data storage has increased to the point where storing and retrieving images of everyone in the world is possible.

While bio-metric markers such as fingerprints are not considered personal property in the US — the police can force you to unlock your smartphone with your fingerprint — other data, such as blood tests, require a judicial warrant. Such warrants are trivially easy to get.

As if all of this isn’t enough, research begun in 2010 allows brain wave reading via electroencephalography (EEG) to be effectively used to determine if a person knows a particular piece of information. The EEG pinpoints an involuntary brain spike called the P300 response. The spike occurs a few milliseconds after a person is shown a familiar image.

How might this work? Let’s imagine that a suspected kidnapper is shown images of various children. The child that creates the largest P300 spike might be the kidnap victim. This would lead the investigators to assume that the individual was involved in the crime.

The technology could help prevent crimes also. For example, if a bomb plot was uncovered and one of the plotters captured, the authorities could show the prisoner pictures of various public venues. The one that created the largest P300 response is likely to be the target.

This sounds like a great idea. We can prevent attacks with weapons of mass destruction with this technology. But, what about misuse of the technology?

What if an authoritarian police state wants to arrest everyone who holds a specific belief system? There might be an image that is common to the belief system that could be used to screen the population. All those who respond with a large P300 could then be arrested, interrogated, and disposed of in some way.

This possibility is not so far fetched, especially when one blends in Artificial Intelligence as an automatic screening system. As a science fiction author, I spend a lot of time thinking about future possibilities and, if I can imagine a society where everyone wears a portable EEG device and is subject to constant electronic interrogation of their thoughts (a great plot idea), it probably has already occurred to scientists and authorities somewhere.

To conclude, let me ask some critical questions:

  • Will society benefit if everyone is forced to monitor their thoughts and dare not think anything out of the ordinary?
  • Will innovation be stifled by this?
  • Will we become less than human if good behavior (as defined by those in power) is forced on everyone?
  • Would such a society cease to develop and become stultified?
  • Will we then redefine undesirable thoughts to include smaller and smaller deviations from the norm? Will the concept of moral and ethical guidance of behavior degenerate, since it is no longer defined by society and individuals, but by those in power?
  • What do you think?

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