Wired's Clive Thompson's latest column probes the new bioethical conundra of "cognitive liberty" -- the freedom not to have our brains scanned. I first encountered the phrase in relation to mind-altering drugs, where it's also a good fit -- what freedom could be more fundamental than the freedom to choose your state of mind?
We think of our brains as the ultimate private sanctuary, a zone where other people can't intrude without our knowledge or permission. But its boundaries are gradually eroding. Hypersonic sound is just a portent of what's coming, one of a host of emerging technologies aimed at tapping into our heads. These tools raise a fascinating, and queasy, new ethical question: Do we have a right to "mental privacy"?
"We're going to be facing this question more and more, and nobody is really ready for it," says Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist and board member of the nonprofit Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. "If the skull is not an absolute domain of privacy, there are no privacy domains left." He argues that the big personal liberty issues of the 21st century will all be in our heads – the "civil rights of the mind," he calls it.
It's true that most of this technology is still gestational. But the early experiments are compelling: Some researchers say that fMRI brain scans can detect surprisingly specific mental acts – like whether you're entertaining racist thoughts, doing arithmetic, reading, or recognizing something. Entrepreneurs are already pushing dubious forms of the tech into the marketplace: You can now hire a firm, No Lie MRI, to conduct a "truth verification" scan if you're trying to prove you're on the level. Give it 10 years, ethicists say, and brain tools will be used regularly – sometimes responsibly, often shoddily.