We have this view of the big nasty surveillance state which was set by the novel 1984. But 1984’s technology was primitive: Big Brother couldn’t record, for example, so if no one was watching a monitor while you did whatever Big Brother didn’t like, you got away with it.

But Big Brother had nothing on what is coming down the line. In China, businesses are already making their employees wear caps which measure brainwaves, and they will move you about or even send you home based on your brainwaves. It’s not all bad; if an air traffic controller’s brain waves went into a pattern which showed lack of concentration ability, for example, they would remove that controller.

MIT has recently announced a headset which can read speech we didn’t actually say:

MIT researchers have developed a headset that can identify words you think of but don’t actually say, by reading signals the brain sends to the face and jaw during internal speech.

The AlterEgo headset captures the neuromuscular signals that occur when people intend to speak. It then uses a neural network to reconstruct the word.

This isn’t the same as reading thoughts, but a lot thoughts we would never say do hit that neuromuscular network, then get inhibited. We’ve all had the experience of “biting our tongue” — carefully keeping things we really want to say to ourselves.

This is still early days, and these are early and crude technologies. We know that the part of our brain which is aware and which considers us tends to be behind the times: The decision to do something is made before we are aware of it, we then back-fill with justifications for decisions we already made.

We can tell that, and in time we will be able to tell that with cheap, mobile equipment, and I am reasonably sure we will be able to tell in advance what the decisions are. We will be able to read intention, and read thoughts that don’t get to the face and jaw, even.

I trust the implications for freedom are obvious.

And this is all before we get to behavioural modification. We’re better at this than we think we are right now, through the mode of gamification, used by terribly addictive social media websites like Facebook and Twitter; but we’re terrible at it in the nitty-gritty of neurons and neurotransmitters and so on, because it’s so complicated.

Still, in time, we will be able to directly manipulate the brain and body to produce emotions and even thoughts on demand as well as to inhibit them. We’ll be able to make people like, hate, love, or fear, and do it directly.

This will have vast therapeutic value, to be sure. It could create a heaven. But such direct control over individuals will be abused, and it will almost certainly be abused at scale, over entire societies.

Because it is control, and people with power (this doesn’t just mean governments) always want more control, and always use it unless forced not to.

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