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March 19th, 2004

neat

NASA develops 'mind-reading' system

Fascinating. The headline calls it "mind-reading", but it's actually a way to sense and interpret subvocalization - when you think a word but don't say it, signals go to the nerves in your throat and mouth - the precursor to the muscles actually starting to move.

I am irritated that they call it 'mind-reading', though, because that falls into the Whorfian fallacy that if you're not using words, you're not thinking, which is, well, bullshit.

But it's still darn cool technology. The article talks about it being a way to help mute people to communicate, give remote commands, or 'talk' without being heard. Being the geek that I am, the first thing I thought is that it would be a way to jack into your PDA and make mental notes to yourself.

Unfortunately, with the "ooh! new toy!" voice comes the paranoid one, which sees people entering airports being scanned to see if they're subvocalizing about bombs, political candidates being scanned to see if they're thinking what idiots their constituents are (or if they're truly going with the party line), or to spy on who people are voting for.

Any technology can be abused, of course - just as with any religion or governmental structure. But that's no reason not to develop the technology, if for no other reason than if the ethical researchers pull back, the unethical ones will push forward and then they'll have tools that you don't. Not a good idea.

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Heather Keith Freeman
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