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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Drawing the Line on Altering Human Minds

In my column this week, “Computer-Brain Interfaces Making Big Leaps,” I noted that a number of researchers and scientists were coming closer to technology usually reserved for science fiction: hacking our brains to remove unwanted and sad memories.

Although the idea of deleting a memory might sound appealing to some â€" who doesn’t want to forget that first heartbreak? â€" it might have disastrous consequences for our brains. It’s one thing to digitally enhance our memories with gadgets like iPhones and Google Glass, it’s something entirely different to delete or change past memories using technology.

Some readers asked if this was taking technology too far, saying such advancements cross a moral or ethical line that science should not pass.

“The human brain is intricate and a lot of damage can occur,” warned Jolan from Brooklyn in a comment on the column.

“If science wants to play with people’s thinking, then they ought to first decide about moral and ethical values of who they work for and the consequences of their actions,” wrote Mr. Magoo 5 from North Carolina.

Given today’s surveillance society, where the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and countless foreign governments monitor communications, connecting our brains and thoughts to the Internet might be asking for even more government trouble.

“What a mess that would be. Can you imagine N.S.A. hoovering up your thoughts from the Internet?” wrote Maurie Beck, from Encino, Calif. “You would need encryption software, but that might not be any different from software used today.”

“A hacker’s dream?” wrote another commentator. These types of hacks could start to resemble the government surveillance under “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s famous book “1984.”

But beyond the surveillance and ethical implications of hacking our brains and our memories, the biggest outcry from readers came in the form of philosophical worry.

“Forgetting your mistakes can be fatal,” wrote John B, a reader from Virginia.

“If our brains are wired, like computers are then, our minds will no longer have privacy,” wrote an anonymous reader. “The person I just met will be able to enter my head and know what I am thinking, possibly without me knowing. My joys and phobias would be public domain. That would make life very, very unpleasant for everyone.”

“A pacemaker is one thing. A cochlear implant sounds useful,” wrote SRSwain from Costa Rica. ”A spinal cord bypass to operate prosthetic limbs, or superacute hearing and vision, but magical transformation of memories and sensoria: No thanks.”