Can a machine read your mind?

I’m sitting in a Sussex cottage, wearing a rubber swimming cap dotted with wires and electrodes. On a laptop in front of me, a constantly shifting wash of coloured graphics portrays the activity in my brain. It’s a neat party trick, but it is also a Pandora’s box: across the world, scientists are using this kind of technology to prise open our minds, to fathom our voting preferences, our guilty thoughts, our shopping desires, even the words we are thinking. Already their activities are stealthily changing our world.

I’m the guest of Dr David Lewis, a British neuropsychologist who uses electronic brain-scanning to help brands see which of their marketing strategies best snare our interest. His Sussex University-based company, the Mind Lab, uses equipment that monitors electrical activity in the brain, and is currently investigating how to refine people’s enjoyment of video games. This is definitely the least contentious end of the market.

Amid all the scientific gadgetry and research, sceptics argue that brain-reading systems are not yet sufficiently developed to be of real use in any field. But in fact, that doesn’t matter: the prospects are far too tantalising. Companies are already marketing the technology as a way to penetrate the last frontier of exploration – the space between our ears. Lawyers, military chiefs, advertisers and politicians are eagerly buying. Welcome to the world of brainjacking, where science fiction is happening now.


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