Christopher Farnsworth is the author of new sci-fi thriller Killfile, based on the real work of the US military to read people’s minds, and he’s also an investigative business journalist
The United States government has wanted to know what you’re thinking for years.
The FBI and CIA used to open people’s mail; now the National Security Agency monitors the phone calls and internet activity of millions of people as part of the ongoing War on Terror.
Between surveillance and satellites and spyware, America has spent literally billions of dollars on efforts to pry into people’s secrets.
Now it’s going even further, all the way into the realm of what sounds like science fiction. Today, the US government is working on technology that is supposed to be able, one day, to literally read your mind.
This isn’t the first time the American government has played around with the idea of telepathy.
Back during the Cold War, several US military and intelligence agencies funded research into ESP, that’s ‘extrasensory perception’, employed psychics, and even experimented on human subjects.
As detailed in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, the US Army trained Special Forces soldiers to try to use the hidden power of the mind to kill with a thought.
The CIA’s Project MK-ULTRA dosed civilians with massive hits of LSD or electroshock therapy in an effort to control their minds. The government also paid for Project Star Gate, which used ‘remote viewers’ who would envision enemy military installations from thousands of miles away.
This is part of where I got the ideas for my latest book, Killfile, about a former psychic soldier who’d been trained on one of these real programmes, but is now working for the highest bidder. He uses his abilities to discover the things people try to hide.
Of course, it’s easier to make telepathy work in fiction than in the real world.
MK-Ultra resulted in at least one death and God only knows how much needless pain for its other unwilling subjects. Project Star Gate was shut down in 1995 after independent reviewers concluded it never came up with any real intelligence. And despite all the staring, there was never any proof of soldiers who developed superpowers.
But technology might succeed where telepathy failed.
There are several projects currently being funded by DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and others that have the potential to hack into the brain like it’s a computer.
As reported last year in Foreign Policy magazine, DARPA has been experimenting with BMI — brain-machine interfaces. These are implants and scanners that read the activity in the brain and translate it into output that can be used to move prosthetic limbs, work a computer, or even pilot a flight simulator.
Likewise, the MRI machines that are currently used to diagnose brain tumours and Alzheimer’s disease are growing sophisticated enough to pinpoint individual thoughts.
Scientists have tracked the brain activity of people watching an image on a screen. Then, using this information, they have been able to create software that predicts — and even re-creates — what the people have seen, based on their brain activity alone.
These technologies have tremendous potential to help victims of paralysis, soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or to detect and prevent any number of diseases.
When tools become weapons
But like any technology, they could also be used as weapons.
BMI could be used to create false memories, perceptions or even actions by stimulating neurons in particular regions of the brain. And future MRI brain scans could be sophisticated enough to actually read an individual’s private thoughts.
Imagine walking through airport security and the word “bomb” goes through your head — and then being pulled out of line and strip-searched because you had a stray thought. Or imagine prisoners at Guantanamo Bay having their memories erased to make certain they never become a threat in the future.
Those advances are, thankfully, still some years away. But as James Giordano, a neuroethicist at Georgetown University Medical Center told Foreign Policy,“The brain is the next battlespace.”
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