Brainmapping is the Data Mining of the Future

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George Orwell’s novel “1984” envisioned a totalitarian system that controlled people’s minds—a terrifying proposition when I read the book as a high school graduate, but it pales compared to what might be possible in the near future.

Imagine a world in which your thoughts are no longer private because your brain is mapped, and all your thoughts, emotions and secrets are revealed to the world. It would be like walking around with our brains on full display, open to anyone who wanted to take a look.

Shocking. Yes. Impossible? No. Just consider:

What do the five most valuable companies in the world — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook — have in common? Insight into our data with the goal to predict and influence our behavior.


Sure, these tools are masked as help at your fingertips, just waiting to make your life easier. Using voice to search surely is convenient. But make no mistake about the real intent.

Think about all the ways we use these technologies, and all the information about us they have access to. Ask Alexa to play your favorite album, and Amazon can infer from your taste in music the items you might buy, and even learn your gender, race and income. Ask Siri to look up a book for you, and Apple has new insight into your political leanings and socioeconomic status. This isn’t an exaggeration: Recent revelations of potential voter manipulation by third parties accessing Facebook’s stockpile of user data show just how much our use of technology can expose things about ourselves that we may not want to reveal to the world at large.

Still not convinced about the flip side of these new advances? Ask yourself why many of these tools are free. Welcome to the world of data mining — unlike the mining of coal and gold, the valuable material being extracted in this case are your thoughts, behaviors and perceptions, and companies are using them to map—and influence— your future actions. 

But users have a choice, some argue. You don’t have to join Facebook; information is available from more places than just Google; Siri doesn’t really know anything we can’t find out for ourselves, with a little effort. And, of course, before using any of these services, you have to agree to the company’s privacy policy, so you should already be aware what kind of information will be collected on your activities — though, of course, few actually read these small-print documents. By clicking the little “I Accept” box, you’ve accepted that all your web searches will be traced, that if you invite Alexa in your home she will listen to all your conversations, and that your smartphone follows and shares your location, web browsing habits and calls.

So, it’s not a giant leap to picture that one day we won’t need a technological go-between to put our full thoughts on display; that technology will exist that can map your brain — with or without your consent. The possibility should make us pause and ask ourselves: How far is too far? What are the legal and ethical implications and limitations? Can they be enforced? How will this new technology change the way we see ourselves? And is this the death of individuality and love?

These are questions we’ll need to answer sooner rather than later. This brain-mapping technology already is in its infancy and is currently being developed with good intentions — for example, Mary Lou Jepsen, a former engineering executive at Facebook, has launched a startup called Openwater to see deep into the body. The company is developing a high-resolution 3-D camera to help fight brain disease. But once mapping our brains through light waves is achievable, the possibility of enhancing our brains’ capacity and catapulting us into the realm of superhumans — as seen in futuristic Hollywood movies — will be out there. And then it will simply be a matter of time before these good intentions are misused. Facebook started as a way to connect us with family and friends, but today mines our thoughts and actions and manipulates our behaviors by feeding us only select pieces of information.

Do we have a choice? Can we stop the inevitable? And what do we hope to gain from these ever-evolving advances in technology?

As always I look forward to your comments and insights.