TEDTalk Review: Nita Farahany “When Technology Can Read Our Minds, How Will We Protect Our Privacy?”

Author: Jane Xia

Nita Farahany, a bioethicist, lawyer and philosopher, worries about how mind-reading technology can one day destroy our society. The speaker begins with a personal story of escaping Iran during violent protesting in the 1960s. She would call her relatives back in Iran and they would change the topic whenever she mentions the protests and wars in fear of being overheard by the government. Farahany transitions from this story to the neuroscience technology that can detect human brain activity. She explains how the technology works in clearly to an audience who possibly does not have any knowledge in the field. She then shows pictures of her own brain activity when she is at rest. This example shows how this technology can essentially record different emotions in connection to different topics.

After explaining how the device works, Farahany explains how this can be dangerous. People may start exchanging their brain activity for discounts or even just to gain access to social media platforms like how we provide our phone numbers and emails for these things. The biggest concern is the lack of knowledge and laws that will protect us from the privacy of our own thoughts. Companies are legally allowed to sell and buy your brain activity information. The Constitution gives us the right of speech, but what about the right of thought? There are already instances where employees in China are forced to where the helmet and are given leaves if their concentration or emotional stability/happiness does not reach a certain point. In Indiana, a boy was charged for “attempting to intimidate his school” when he posted a video of him playing a zombie-shooting video game. Authorities claimed that the game was “a mental projection of his subjective intent”. Farahany logically explains each concern and why it concerns the general public and each individual.

Finally, Farahany provides a solution to the problem of mental privacy. She states that we should fight against the “misuse of our information” and securing our rights. People should be allowed which information they want to share, and should not have thoughts be held against them during employment, healthcare, and other settings. She believes that we need to share more of our personal information that will benefit our health and well-being, but we need to find ways to secure this information. Although it is a great solution, I think it runs off topic in comparison to the rest of the speech. The entire talk, including the conclusion, continuously talks about the horrors of brain-reading technology, all of a sudden, there is a small section that provides a solution to the potential problem. I think the solution should either be longer or could be another speech by itself. Since it is so short, it is underdeveloped and does not address the various other problems that come with this technology such has individual handling of information and government power and control over our information. This section simply sticks out like a sore thumb at the end of the speech since Farahany ends the speech with the horrors of the Iranian government being able to read the minds of citizens during protests.

Overall, the speech is nicely organized with information that is easy to understand. The only problem is the solution section of the speech, where it does not really belong since there wasn’t a pretext for this and it appeared out of the blue.

Listen to the talk here.