TOM UTLEY: Computers that can tell what we're really thinking? Stop the world, I want to get off!

Most of my generation have long grown used to the fact that computers have transformed our world in ways we would have dismissed in our youth as outlandish fantasies from the wildest shores of science fiction.

We accept with a shrug that Google, Amazon, Facebook and Co know a great deal more about us — our interests and shopping habits, weaknesses, likes and dislikes — than even the closest of our near and dear.

We realise that the greatest of human grandmasters will never again be a match for the latest generation of chess-playing software programmed with Artificial Intelligence.

Most older people acknowledge computers have transformed the world, file photograph

Most older people acknowledge computers have transformed the world, file photograph

Young people are hopelessly addicted to their mobile phones and laptops 

Young people are hopelessly addicted to their mobile phones and laptops 

Meanwhile, we see a generation growing up around us hopelessly addicted to the internet — unable to spell or read maps, incapable of distinguishing between truth and fake news, swept along and battered by every passing Twitterstorm. Permanently plugged into electronic devices and antisocial media, they seem increasingly cut off from human interaction in what we once thought of as the real world.

But though much of this may worry and sadden us, we bear it all as philosophically as we can, reminding ourselves of the huge benefits the new technology has brought mankind. 

We may mourn the slow death of the High Street, but, let’s face it, increasing numbers of us have been unable to resist the convenience of shopping online, making us complicit in its murder.

It’s the same with public libraries. In this age when so much of what they contain is available at the click of a mouse, when did most of those who campaign so vociferously to save them last actually use them?

As for the computerisation of banking and every other area of commerce, we may shake our heads sagely and warn that this makes us hugely vulnerable to fraud and cyber-attack, which could destroy the economy faster even than Jeremy Corbyn — but, oh how much simpler the hole-in-the-wall cash machine and the plastic card have made our lives.

And who needs to know how to spell or read maps when we have spellcheck and satnav to save us the bother?

Indeed, if you’re anything like me, you will have told yourself constantly that it’s as pointless to complain about the march of electronic science as it was for our ancestors to bemoan the arrival of the railways and the steam-powered cotton mill.

Yes, these labour-saving inventions changed the economy radically, but predictions that they would throw future generations out of work proved groundless.

As it turned out, new jobs sprang up in ever greater numbers to replace those killed off — to the point where, today, more people are employed in Britain than at any time in our history.

Though never noted for my optimism, I strongly suspect the doomsayers who fear Artificial Intelligence robots will put us all on the dole will prove equally wide of the mark. As in the Industrial Revolution, I dare say we’ll find other ways to keep ourselves busy.

And look on the bright side. If the march of science continues at its present dizzying pace, there may even come a day when some towering genius works out how to solve Network Rail’s perennial ‘signalling problems’, which hold up my train almost every morning and evening of my life.

(Perhaps someone who works there can explain why, in an age when computers make it possible to perform keyhole surgery in Kuala Lumpur from a desk in Aberdeen, nobody can yet manage to change a signal on the line from West Croydon to Victoria.)

All this I have told myself, again and again, resolving to embrace the latest advances and suppress my natural inclination to rail against them.

Nissan is working on a system to read the brains of motorists to speed up reactions 

Nissan is working on a system to read the brains of motorists to speed up reactions 

That was until this week, when I read of a new development so terrifying in its implications that I’ve decided enough is enough.

Stop the world, I want to get off! 

This was the news that scientists at the Nissan Research Centre in Japan are developing a car capable of interpreting signals from drivers’ brains, via what looks like a bathing cap studded with sensors.

If I understand it correctly, the idea of the ‘brain-to-vehicle’ (B2V) technology is to improve road safety by monitoring brain wave activity for signs that we are about to make a movement, such as turning the steering wheel or braking.

The car then begins the manoeuvre automatically, before the signal has had time to travel from our brain to our arms or legs. Thus, the technology beats us to it, knocking up to half a second off our reaction times — a saving that, in an emergency, could mean the difference between life and death.

When the car is in autonomous mode, driving itself, the system is also said to be able to detect any human discomfort, slowing down if we think we’re going too fast or speeding up if we’re in a hurry. As Daniele Schillaci, Nissan executive vice-president explains: ‘When most people think about autonomous driving, they have a very impersonal vision of the future, where humans relinquish control to the machines.

‘Yet B2V technology does the opposite, by using signals from their own brain to make the drive even more exciting and enjoyable.’

This may all sound innocent enough. But then so did experiments with splitting the atom, before they led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagaski.

What scares me stiff is the question: if B2V is already capable of reading a driver’s mind — and Nissan hopes to have it fully ready for fitting in its cars within five or ten years — what other uses will be found for the technology?

Indeed, research leader Lucian Gheorghe is putting it mildly when he says: ‘The potential applications are incredible.’

I find it unnerving enough that I need only speak a command to my Amazon Echo, or ask it a question, and at least seven times out of ten it will do my bidding. 

How long before I have only to think something before its brain, Alexa, obeys — or, worse still, if she blabs my thoughts aloud for everyone in the room to hear?

We’re all well enough used to the internet giants gathering every scrap of personal information they can glean from our social media accounts and online surfing and shopping habits. But if they learn to read our minds as well, every last vestige of our privacy will be gone.

To a huge extent, I reckon, harmonious social interaction depends on keeping our innermost thoughts to ourselves. Already, I often wish the internet hadn’t eroded so many inhibitions, encouraging people to express every stupid, lascivious or murderous thought that flits into their brains.

How much worse, though, if machines could reveal what we’re really thinking, when we tell our wives they look lovely in that dress or the fishcakes are delicious.

And what if our bosses could fix high-tech bathing caps on our heads and discover our true thoughts about their general unfitness to inhabit planet Earth? Civilised life as we know it would collapse.

Worst of all, if the police could read every fantasy or politically incorrect notion that has ever entered our heads, thought-crime could become a hideous reality.

Heaven knows, we suffer enough restrictions these days on what we are allowed to say. How many of us would escape arrest if we could be prosecuted for what we think?

You think it could never happen? Well, perhaps you’re right.

But what if I’d told you, 50 years ago, that by 2018 we’d be living in a world of smartphones, satnav, voice-activated technology, internet shopping, Google and B2V. I bet you’d have called me something unthinkable.

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