crazed person wearing tin foil hat

A Public Window into Your Soul

Whether you like it or not, we’re installing one. Resistance is futile.

I think this is what we’ll be hearing from Silicon Valley leaders in another ten to twenty years – if they’ll be bold enough to deliver the straightforward message. In reality, we’ll probably hear something a bit more measured, like the text below. (It’s based on a quote from Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote at the 2017 F8 conference).

[We’re really excited] about some of the work that we’re doing in Building 8[1]… work around direct brain interfaces that are going to eventually, one day, let you communicate using only your mind.

Excited why? Because devices that enable computer mediated “telepathy” will likely add another dimension to the big-data-driven advertising machine: real-time emotional monitoring. Imagine the profile that could be constructed by aggregating an individual’s location records, communication records, purchasing history, network of friends, and moment-by-moment mood. Throw in some predictive analytics, and then imagine the value of that profile to any other person or organization seeking influence over a consumer; a citizen; a voter. To see such devices become popular would be a boon to… some.


Existing Technology: Trends Over the Past 15 Years
In 2004, when Google launched Gmail, the company began scanning email content to facilitate targeted advertising. That practice has recently been modified.

In 2010, a company called Emotiv announced the creation of a consumer-grade electroencephalography device. Emotiv’s device maps brainwave patterns to computer commands, enabling people to move objects across a screen using thought alone, or to control robotic devices (for instance, an electric wheelchair) by thinking “left” and “right.” Users can also experience a video game that changes based on emotional reactions to the virtual world. Also in 2010, the Braingate[2] project took off, allowing a woman with locked-in syndrome to communicate using a chip implanted directly into her brain.

In 2013, Facebook studied information that its users typed but never posted. To be fair, Facebook did not actually record individual keystrokes (though doing so is possible), but the company did fail to inform people that they were being monitored and analyzed in the first place.

In 2018, NPR ran a story on the use of emoticons, or emojis, to deliver mood-appropriate advertising. In essence, the narrative went like this: someone tweets, instagrams, or posts an emoji on Facebook. A datamining conglomerate detects the post. The person who posted receives ads based on his or her current emotional state as it is perceived by the machine. The event is recorded, which contributes to an ever-growing profile of that person.

To recap:

  • Monitoring consumer emotions in real time is of obvious value to advertisers – today they glean insight when people post emoticons.
  • Scanning the content of communications is valuable as well – Google has been doing it since 2004.
  • An affordable device that captures real-time information about the wearer’s mood has existed since 2010 – though neural interface is in its infancy, it’s definitely on the path to consumer markets.
  • Finally, Silicon Valley has demonstrated a willingness to be less than forthright about the amount of information it tracks.

A Prediction
I don’t think society is quite ready to adopt the “mind-reading” devices that Facebook will be touting in future decades. The everyday citizen is certainly not ready for neural implants – though maybe we’re getting used to Emotiv’s sleek (but visible) EEG cap? I’ll be ready for mine when it comes with a 59FIFTY sticker on the brim, or when it’s available in sweatband form.

But Silicon Valley has been gradually, deliberately, getting us used to the idea that these things will become normal. Like! Friend! Post! Follow! Share! About fifteen years ago, when Facebook was relatively new (and when I still had an account), I was scolded by a friend for sharing my real address and real phone number on the internet. Imagine the risk! At the time it would have been unthinkable, or at least odd, to package up my family photo albums – collections of treasured memories – and voluntarily FedEx them to a marketing company for analysis. But now most of us do this on a regular basis as we upload images of vacations, gatherings, and family milestones to remote data centers. Whether good, bad, or inconsequential, the practice has been normalized.

So what’s next on the agenda for tech companies that seek to change how we communicate – to change how we relate – to change the norms? I think it’s convincing their users that brainwave monitoring is fun, and someday, that neural implants are cool, too. I think the children of tomorrow will be asking for Facebook’s wearable (or implantable) tech come the holiday season. And who will say “no” once those technologies have permeated society? Communicating via thought will be perceived as essential to creating friendships, just as having a Facebook account is now perceived as essential to maintaining friendships. (Is our definition of “friend” the same as it was 10 years ago?) Where will children be without “direct brain interfaces” when the new era arrives? I hope some will be playing in the woods, wearing tinfoil caps.

Other Interesting Reading

[1] Building 8 is Facebook’s somewhat secretive research facility. It’s been led by former DARPA employees. DARPA is on the cutting edge of military defense.

[2] Braingate receives DARPA funding. Some other DARPA projects include “Active Social Engineering Defense” “Active Interpretation of Disparate Alternatives” and “Computational Simulation of Online Behavior