Humans are a social species. We’re also a work in progress. Despite our impressive ability to interpret the innumerable messages we send each other by numerous means, there are still misunderstandings — lots of them. Our Human-to-Human Protocol, defined by arcane social graces and subtleties, is clumsy. There is static in the system.
But what if there wasn’t?
This is the question posed by our society’s obsession with telepathy and by the next generation of neural imaging technology, which is finally giving us the opportunity to understand what mind reading could look like in practice.
BrainGate is the closest thing we currently have to an output port for the brain. The system, developed at Brown University, can identify a limited number of human thought patterns. Currently, the technology is used to translate those patterns into actions (think: moving a mouse across a computer screen). One reason it’s limited to basic tasks is that it lacks single neuron resolution. But consider the rate at which smartphone photo resolution improved and then entertain the thought that BrainGate could show the same exponential results as we march towards mapping the full human connectome. Mind reading technology is conceivable in a concrete way. But being plausible doesn’t mean being plug and play.
One thing that we already know is that any mind reading device (or initial models, at least) will have to be calibrated to each person. Each brain is built from a fundamentally different network and, as such, thoughts probably manifest in wildly different ways. In order for a mind reading device to work, it would be necessary to “train” it to recognize specific patterns. Still, this constitutes the smaller of two leaps necessary to make mind reading a reality because harvesting information is only half the battle. It has to be rendered coherent.
One of the major issues in neurophilosophy is that we really have no idea what it’s like inside of someone else’s head. The classic example of this is that it’s impossible to know if someone sees red. Biologists can demonstrate the existence of light-sensitive cells capable of detecting light energy in the red wavelength in a retina and confirm the ability to process that signal in the visual cortices, but they cannot know how the color actually appears in someone’s mind. Individuals interpret light wavelengths between roughly 600-700 nanometers individually. That’s just one color. Now imagine trying to explore someone else’s imagination.
You’re never going to watch someone else’s dreams like a movie. You’ll have to dream with them.
And the reason for this isn’t simply that some things are unknowable. It’s that knowledge itself is a reflection of personal experience and the subconscious. Experiences seem to be layered into the brain in multiple ways at once: chronologically sure, but also sensorially and emotionally and by shapes and temperatures and people and physical vectors. Every single thought draws on a network of thousands of other thoughts, other “reds” and blues and squares and numbers, all of which are understood in unique ways. To read someone’s mind, you’d need the Rosetta Stone of their thoughts. In the absence of that artifact, you’d need a technology that enables you to be inside their head.
Let’s say this sort of setup could be built. The hardware itself would be far less valuable than the information it was capable of collecting. Mind reading would likely be used to create a sort of introspective social media platform capable of monetizing massive quantities of very personal data by offering a popular service free of charge. And we already have a notion of what that service might look like: Thync is an existing technology that claims to broadcast directly to a brain. Although the resolution is currently limited to fairly large brain structures – the two settings are “energy” and “relaxed” — improvements on this idea, if true, might make it possible to send other messages, and open the door to telepathy. A sort of Bluetooth of the soul, capable of making both memories and moods go viral.
If such a technology proliferated, it could be used for good or evil, but — perhaps more pressingly — efficiency or thoughtfulness. Either mind reading would allow us to build consensus in real time while victimizing thinkers in identifiable minorities, or it would bond us through empathy and understanding to the vast diversity of experience. We could be catalyzed or paralyzed by our ability to organize individually and collectively at the same time. Either way, small talk would surely go by the wayside.
There are a variety of ways in which this sort of technology could help. The ability to objectively track thought patterns without having to rely on testimonials might allow us to slay mental illnesses we currently struggle to understand, or to predict the actions of the sociopathic. We might be able to comprehend, rather than simply tolerate, neurodiversity, and purposefully sort through different types of intelligence. We might also come to better terms with our shared instincts, particularly the baser ones, and burn off a cloud of shame. Would the aggregation of all these collected thoughts lead, through emergence, to a “global consciousness,” or would networks be defined by social and cultural conditions already in place. Or maybe this technology will do nothing more than eliminate the Rashomon effect. It’s certainly possible that we’d use the technology to empathize more thoroughly with those we already find empathic. Whether or not that would represent some sort of moral failure is a matter of personal perspective.
Which is to say that it’s a matter for personal consideration, a matter about which you’ll never be able to make perfectly clear to anyone else because your brain remains alone. For now.