Marcello Ienca discusses moral and legal issues surrounding the decoding – ‘mind reading’ - of brain activity
In the 1990s, following rapid advances in the use of technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an ethical debate arose around the concept of 'mind reading': the possibility of decoding a person's mental states (including their conscious experience) based on quantitative measurements of their brain activity. This debate concerned the moral and legal status of information about mental states (mental information) and the definition of normative principles to justify the collection and processing of such information. However, the poor replicability of fMRI-based studies combined with conceptual clarifications within the philosophy of mind (such as Dennett's vehicle-content distinction) showed that this debate rested on weak empirical and conceptual grounds. As a result, the interest of the bioethics/neuroethics community waned. A couple of decades later, however, the wide availability of brain data outside the clinical setting combined with the use of artificial intelligence models to process and decode such data (through a process known as 'reverse inference') make the ethical debate on mind-reading topical again, albeit on a different conceptual ground. In addition, AI approaches such as affective computing and natural language processing have shown the possibility of inferring a person's mental states also from non-neural data (e.g., social media). This presentation will discuss the moral and legal status of mental information and the conditions for legitimate access to and alteration of such information. In particular, it will examine the concepts of ‘mental privacy’ and ‘cognitive liberty’ and defend the thesis that every person should enjoy a right to mental self-determination. This includes both the negative freedom from coercive or otherwise non-voluntary access to one's mental sphere and the positive freedom of the individual to modify their mental states and processes (e.g. through cognitive or affective enhancement).