How will we find a way through the new minefield of brain tracking and hacking? Ethicist and lawyer Nita Farahany's book is an excellent, if troubling, look at neurotechnology

ETHICIST and lawyer Nita Farahany is no stranger to neurological intervention. She has sought relief from her chronic migraines in “triptans, anti-seizure drugs, antidepressants, brain enhancers, and brain diminishers”. She has had “neurotoxins injected into my head, my temples, my neck, and my shoulders; undergone electrical stimulation, transcranial direct current stimulation, MRIs, EEGs, fMRIs, and more”.

Few know better than Farahany what neurotech can do for people’s betterment, and this lends weight to The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the right to think freely in the age of neurotechnology. Her book is a sombre, troubling, yet essential account of a field whose speed of expansion alone should give us pause. Here we meet Myontec, Athos, Delsys and Noraxon, firms already offering insights to athletes and sports therapists that are generated by electromyography (EMG), a way to assess the health of muscles and the nerve cells controlling them.

Then there is the NeuroNode from Control Bionics, a wearable EMG device for people with degenerative neurological disorders that enables them to control a computer, tablet or motorised device. Or Neurable, a firm that promises “the mind unlocked” with its “smart headphones for smarter focus”.

That is before we even turn to the fast-growing interest in implantable devices. Synchron, Blackrock Neurotech and Elon Musk’s Neuralink all have brain-computer interfaces in advanced stages of development.

Setting aside the medical applications for a moment, Farahany is concerned that neurotech we used to use only for playing video games, meditating or improving our focus has opened the way to a future of brain transparency in which, she warns, “scientists, doctors, governments, and companies may peer into our brains and minds at will”.

Think it can’t be done? A team led by Dawn Song, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, reported an experiment in which people used a neural interface to control a video game. As they played, the researchers inserted subliminal images into the game and watched for unconscious recognition signals. This netted them one player’s home address – and the access code of their credit card.

Now, we learn from Farahany, Massachusetts-based firm Brainwave Science is selling software called iCognative, which it says can analyse EEG signals and tell if an individual knows something about a crime, act of terrorism, piece of intel and so on. Or, at least, suspects are shown pictures related to crimes and can’t help but recognise whatever they happen to recognise.

This technique is as popular with governments (such as those in Bangladesh, India and Australia) as it is derided by many scientists.

Even more worrying, given the scale of home working in the wake of covid-19, are efforts to use neurotech to monitor remote employees. Some programs already take regular screenshots of their work, record keystrokes and web usage and photograph them at (or not at) their desks. San Francisco bioinformatics company Emotiv now offers to help manage your employees’ attention with its MN8 earbuds. These can indeed be used to listen to music or participate in conference calls. And with just two electrodes, one in each ear, the device is said to be able to record emotional and cognitive functions of staff in real time.

After surveying Farahany’s dismal catalogue, it will come as no surprise if neurotech does become a requirement in modern workplaces: no earbuds, no job. This sort of thing has happened many times already in the past.

Vladimir Lenin complained in 1912 of factory workers paid more to adopt methods that quadrupled productivity. “As soon as workers get used to the new system their pay is cut to the former level,” Lenin wrote. The capitalist “attains an enormous profit” while the workers “toil four times as hard as before and wear down their nerves and muscles four times as fast”.

Ironically enough, six years later, Lenin approved funding for a research institute based on the principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor pioneered “scientific management”, which aimed to up productivity by applying science to the way we work.

Farahany offers no quick fixes for what could be the 21st-century equivalent, the high-tech assaults on the mind – “the one place of solace to which we could safely and privately retreat”, as she puts it. I was left wondering what to be more afraid of: the neural devices themselves, or the glee with which the powerful seize upon them.