“A penny for your thoughts,” they said in old movies, and the listener would often reply, “They’re not worth that much.” We have been brought up on the principle that thoughts are private, unassailable, and indeed worth less than a penny. The first thing—that they are private—is ceasing to be true. The second and third will come after.
It is true that we still do not understand how the brain constructs a representation of the world, but it is not necessary to understand it to start using it. For example, seeing a passenger plane landing involves a process of progressive abstraction—lines, angles, surfaces, volumes, a grammar of shapes—that can be detected with imaging techniques as common as magnetic resonance imaging. Humans do not know how to read these neural patterns to deduce from them what a person is seeing, but artificial intelligence does. Show the machine the patterns of brain activity and it will know that you are looking at a plane landing or a clock on a steeple. The work of Yu Takagi and Shinji Nishimoto, from Osaka University, is awaiting peer review.
That mathematics can deduce from neuronal activity what a person is thinking is evidence called to light the hair of philosophers. Some, like the ones at school mysterious, They will argue that, even when there is a neurological explanation for thought, humans will not be able to understand it, and the truth is that the fact that artificial intelligence was necessary seems to prove them right in this case. Others, in the wake of Charles Sanders Peirce, will recover their concept of quality, the elements of conscious experience, such as the redness of red or the pain of a headache, which according to this school are irreducible to the activity of a mere set of objects, such as a neural circuit. We will leave to future thinkers the refutation of these exercises in academic wit.
One can also go off on a tangent by arguing that the mental representation of an image is one thing, and the TRUE thinking is quite another. It is not. All mental activity is due to—or rather consists of—the activity of certain configurations of neurons, and this is the same for seeing a steeple clock as it is for writing the Critique of pure reason. Seeing is activating neurons. Think too, unless one is willing to claim Cartesian dualism or the existence of the soul as guides for the advancement of knowledge.
So if thoughts are no longer private, will they still be imputable? You are innocent while you dream, sings Tom Waits, but how innocent are you while you think? Imagine that you are thinking of stealing moonstone, a prodigious diamond capable of overthrowing a kingdom, and a neurodetective deduces it from your brain scan. Should I stop you? Your lawyer will say no, because thoughts are private, but the prosecutor will argue that they aren’t. What if instead of stealing a jewel you are planning to poison half the city? Or destroy the world?
No, your thoughts are not worth less than a penny anymore. They can be worth a fortune, and they can also lead to ruin. They are as real as the gun you keep in your drawer.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits