Friday, April 29, 2011

Dangerous ideas (2)

Once I wrote in a blog “On an airport, they can scan your material luggage but not your dangerous thoughts.” At least we hope so, but is it true? Not so long ago a research group led by Prof. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California Los Angeles tried to find out whether it is really not possible to read the minds of other people. I will not go into the details of the research, but the essence is this. The members of a test group of twenty volunteers got – mixed with other messages – information about the safe use of sunscreen. After the test they received a bag with several things including sunscreen towelettes. They were also asked whether they were going to use the sunscreen in the week to come. During the time that the test subjects got the information about the sunscreen, their brains were scanned with a fMRI scanner, which registrates brain activity. A week later the test subjects were asked in a surprise follow up whether they did use the sunscreen. Their answers were compared with the data of the fMRI scans made during the experiment. This showed that the fMRI data predicted better what the test subjects actually would do than their stated intentions.
Today, we are not yet that far that we can place a brain scanner on an airport and scan the brains of all passengers before boarding. However, when I read such research reports, I think that the time that this will happen is not far away and that sooner or later they can read your dangerous thoughts. If such a scanner would pick out only and only those persons who intended to blow up an aeroplane and if it would do nothing else, I think we could live with it. However, besides that it will probably not be possible to make a scanner that is 100% reliable in doing this, history shows that the practice will be different. Scanners will be used not only for scanning your factual bomb throwing intentions but your other possible dangerous ideas as well. But what is dangerous? Who determines what is dangerous? Some people thought that Mahatma Gandhi and M.L. King had dangerous ideas. Today websites propagating nonviolent methods for toppling repressive regimes are blocked by these regimes because they are “dangerous” (at least for them). The practice will be, of course, that the authorities will think that every person can be a criminal. Therefore they want to collect your most private data, so your thoughts (although they will say that this is done for your own safety). Big brother will be watching you, even more.

For a short description of the experiment see

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