The Gustavian Weekly

Matters of the Mind

By Caitlin Skvorc Opinion Columnist | May 9, 2014 | Opinion

Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: Sexy. Vulcan Mind Meld? Not so much. Creative Commons

Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: Sexy. Vulcan Mind Meld? Not so much. Creative Commons

With the finals season fast approaching, many students are probably starting to think, “man, I wish someone else could just take that test for me.” To my hopeful friends, then, I have to ask: if you really could get someone to go through the motions for you like that, would you do it?

In August of last year, researchers at the University of Washington published the results of an experiment using “what they believe is the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface” according to the University of Washington news online. In simpler and more specific terms, they put some fancy magnetic caps on two people’s heads, and were able to transmit one person’s brainwaves to another as they sat in different rooms. The first subject pressed the space bar on a computer to shoot a canon in a video game, and the guy in the other room twitched the same finger, at the same time.

While the success of the experiment depended heavily on the willingness of both subjects to participate, and the transferred brainwave triggered a motion rather than a conscious thought, there is no denying the ominous potential of this project.

It’s not hard to imagine that, sometime in the future, with the development of this kind of technology, a student in a dorm room could think hard about writing down an answer, and transmit that motion into the hand of someone in a classroom. Cheating potential aside, I wonder: did anyone stop to think about ethics in the potential scope of this experiment?

Given the already tremendous influence of the media on things like body image and gender, as well as political propaganda, it seems highly likely that technology like this could lead to a whole new level of brainwashing.

Americans live in a country–and, increasingly, a world–where progress and individualism reigns supreme, but all too often we succumb to laziness in our daily lives. Although we are probably the largest advocates of democracy, are we not in danger of giving an elite group of people power over the majority, in an effort to make things easier on ourselves?

I do not mean to imply that science or progress is inherently bad or doomed to ethical failure, but perhaps progress for the sake of progress is. Scientists like Josef Mengele, the mastermind behind the human experiments of the Holocaust, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the so-called “fathers” of the atomic bomb, probably started out with dreams of making the world a more capable, if not “better” place. Clearly, something went wrong.

While the follow-up question of “where” is a complicated one, the answer starts with something like greed and selfishness. When the means to an end start to lose focus in the name of progress, and an individual reputation takes precedence over compassion and community relationships, the danger of unethical practice becomes real.

The debate over ethics in science is nothing new, but how many people have thought about it in terms of the ethics of knowledge? When did we as people decide that we have a right to all knowledge?

If you don’t believe in original sin, this question might not have an answer. To some, the question may not even seem relevant. But I know I am not the only who wants to have their own thoughts be their own thoughts, and have complete control over whether or not they are shared.

To bring this back to the brain interface experiment, some comfort lies, again, in the power people have (currently) to say yes or no, and we need to take advantage of that. The gift of human agency is a precious one, and soon it will be threatened. If I am willing to let a Facebook app access all of my information and post on my behalf without a second though, letting someone use their brain to move a pen in my hand on the page doesn’t seem so far off.

So let your mind make moral dilemmas of matters like this, if only to retain your ability to make a conscious choice. In the not-so-distant future, you might wish you still had the power to do something yourself.