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Recently, a group of Australian researchers demonstrated a “mind-reading” system called BrainGPT. The system can, according to its creators, convert thoughts (recorded with a non-invasive electrode helmet) into words that are displayed on a screen. Essentially, BrainGPT connects a multitasking EEG encoder to a large language model capable of decoding coherent and readable sentences from EEG signals.

Is the mind, the last frontier of privacy, still a safe place to think one’s thoughts? I spoke with Harvard-based behavioral neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a leader in the study of neuroplasticity and noninvasive brain stimulation, about what it means and how we can protect ourselves.

Alvaro, I need a reality check. What can actually be read today in the brain, and to what extent?

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The reality is that the ability to read the brain and influence activity is already here. It’s no longer only in the realm of science fiction. Now, the question is, what exactly can we access and manipulate in the brain?

Consider this example: If I instruct you to move a hand, I can tell if you are preparing to move, say, your right hand. I can even administer a precise “nudge” to your brain and make you move your right hand faster. And you would then claim, and fully believe, that you moved it yourself. However, I know that, in fact, it was me who moved it for you. I can even force you to move your left hand—which you were not going to move—and lead you to rationalize why you changed your mind when in fact, our intervention led to that action you perceive as your choice. We have done this experiment in our laboratory.

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Neurorights will be fundamental in the future.

In humans, we can modify brain activity by reading and writing in the brain, so to speak, though we can affect only very simple things right now. In animals, we can do much more complex things because we have much more precise control of the neurons and their timing. But the capacity for that modulation of smaller circuits progressively down to individual neurons in humans is going to come, including much more selective modification with optogenetic alternatives—that is, using light to control the activity of neurons.

Are there ways to protect the privacy of the brain from this, and how can we ward against the invasiveness of these machines?

Something that we should be very clear about as a society and as human beings is what regulations and criteria we should develop so that their use is appropriate—and beneficial—for the individual and not just a source of profit or power. I welcome this movement in favor of neuroethics and its application to neurological techniques because I think it is crucial.

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Last year, I attended an open session on neurorights in Valencia, Spain. You shared the stage with your colleague Rafael Yuste, director of the NeuroTechnology Center at Columbia University and co-founder of The NeuroRights Foundation. At the meeting, the Declaration on Neurorights of Valencia was unveiled. This Declaration asserts that neurorights must be included in the universal list of human rights. Why do you think neurorights are important and necessary for our present and immediate future life?

I think Rafa Yuste has articulated the challenge, the problem, and the need very well. I think we already have technology that allows us to read and write in the brain, extract information from our brain, and manage it in a way that could compromise, at least potentially, the independence, privacy, and agency of each of us.

You refer to the ability to make decisions and the choices that constitute free will, right?

Exactly. That’s what I mean by agency. The assertive ability, in the first place, to do and decide for oneself. Anything that interferes with that poses a potential risk to the very essence of human rights. In other words, a new list of human rights would have to be developed and expanded by Neurorights. They need to be expanded, as the current ones fall short and do not sufficiently protect against the possibility of information extraction, manipulation, and personal control to which today’s neurotechnology can already give rise. I have joined in because I believe they are a necessary extension. Neurorights will be fundamental in the societies of the future.

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This piece was adapted with permission from MIT Press Reader.

Lead image: Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

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