Monday, April 03, 2017

Big Brother will come within you

Last week I described Hilary Putnam’s case of a brain in a vat. Here I’ll bypass Putnam’s interpretation of the case and the philosophical debate it provoked. However, currently it’s not yet possible to remove a brain from a body, keep it alive in a vat with nutrients and make the brain think that it is a real person that behaves and thinks as a normal human being. Nonetheless, I think that the time will not be far away that is be possible to envat a brain.
The Dutch neuro-scientist Anke Marit Albers took a number of test persons, placed them in a fMRI scanner and asked them to imagine a multi-banded grate that could be rotated in three different ways: 60, 120 or 180 degrees. Albers didn’t know how many degrees each test person mentally rotated the grate but the fMRI scanner could tell her by scanning the individual brains.
Of course, it was not as simple as that, although it’s the essence of the test. First, since each person organizes his or her brain in a different way, a scanner must learn for each single person which pattern in the brain corresponds to a grate that has been rotated either 60 or 120 or 180 degrees. But once the fMRI scanner has learned the typical patterns for each test person, it can read the rotation in a test person’s brain. Second, although the scanner basically can tell how much a test person has mentally rotated the grate, it makes mistakes. In spite of this it does better than chance. So if you want to know how much the test person has rotated the grate, you can better use a scanner than just guess it.
The investigation has its limitations. That’s clear. The test person was allowed to rotate the grate in his or her imagination only in three different ways and the prediction how much s/he did is not infallible. Nevertheless it’s a giant leap forward on the road to read the minds of other persons. Once the method will have been improved, it can be useful to help patients who suffer from hallucinations or obsessions, so Albers.
What does it mean for the case of a brain in a vat? There is an important difference between this case and the investigation by Albers: Albers tries to detect which imaginations a person has; so the imaginations are the output of her test. In the brain-in-a-vat-case, however, imaginations are put into the brain; they are the input of the brain. Our first thought of the idea to use imaginations as brain input may be that it’s science fiction. However, what is science fiction today can be reality tomorrow. Wasn’t – to take an example – Jules Verne’s novel Around the Moon science fiction in his days and hasn’t it become true a century later? Even more, man has not only flown around the moon but he also walked on the moon. And maybe already soon the day will come that thoughts can be inserted into the brain. For doing so we need to know how the brain is structured, and, as I just have shown, the first steps have already been done to find it out.
Investigators can already steer the behaviour of test animals by stimulating their brains. Brain implants are being developed in order to restore vision in the brains of people who are congenitally blind or to make paralyzed limbs move again. In fact, this is a matter of bringing outside information inside the brain. One step more and it will be possible to bring fake information (and thoughts) in the brain in this way. According to Albers theoretically such things can be done, although there still are many practical impediments. For a handicapped person brain implants would be fantastic. However, “it evokes also more terrifying ideas within me”, so Albers. For Big Brother such a progress of science will be great. No longer he needs to manipulate your environment in order to manipulate you in an indirect way, with the risk of failure and undesired effects. When the knowledge of thought implantation will have been fully developed, he simply can put a chip in your head and connect you with a computer. One step further and only transmitting a special kind of brain waves in the air will suffice. Then we’ll not be much unlike Putnam’s envatted brain.

Sources: De Volkskrant, March 22, 2017; p. 27. Anke Marit Albers, “Tracking dynamic mental representation in early visual cortex”, on

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