Monday, November 14, 2016

Big Brother 21st Century Style

The barrier between the outside world and the sacred space inside your head is eroding at an accelerated rate. An algorithm has been developed that scours social media posts and can predict depression in the poster with 70% accuracy, which is twice the accuracy rate of human doctors. Elsewhere scientists have developed nanobots that release drugs into your system when a particular ‘mind-state’ is detected.

The desire to identify and ensure early intervention for depressive and possibly suicidal tendencies is clearly understandable. Similarly, being able to trigger drug release in patients when they’re experiencing a seizure minimises improper dosing and ensures the drugs are extremely well-targeted. But as a science fiction author, I can imagine all kinds of alternative applications for these technologies that we might not applaud so readily.

No doubt the security agencies already have algorithms scouring our likes and tweets for hints of terrorist leanings, but the algorithm isn’t yet so refined that it provides actionable data on its own – or I don’t think it does. But it may get to that stage in the not-too-distant future and then we could be in Minority Report PreCrime territory, where even a mild inclination in our social media stream will be evidence of guilt.

This type of ‘preventative enforcement’ could go even further if we think about those drug-filled nanobots. Once a particular synaptic firing sequence that the government finds particularly abhorrent – say a desire for social change – is identified and targeted, the nanobots swarming through or body could automatically alter our mood or even tranquilise us. If that happens, any potential revolution will be quashed before it can truly begin.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -