On manipulating memories, we're not as far behind Hollywood as you might think

Deep brain stimulation is racing ahead, and the ethical issues associated with it are starting to be debated.

Remember Total Recall? When the film came out in 1990, its premise, in which people take virtual holidays using memory manipulation, seemed farfetched. But on 20 August President Obama’s commission on bioethics debated what we ought to do about memory manipulation. That’s because it is just one of many invasive actions we are beginning to perform on the brain.
 
This month, the first trials of a new technique for controlling Parkinson’s disease began. A German sufferer has had a “deep brain stimulation” device, essentially a pair of electrodes, implanted in his brain. It will monitor the brain’s activity to deliver electrical currents designed to combat tremors and muscle rigidity. A similar technique has been shown, in a few cases, to reverse the shrinkage of brain tissues associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This reversal was not only about the neural tissue’s physical appearance: it led to improved brain functioning. No one knows how it works; the best guess is that it stimulates the growth of neurons.
 
Deep brain stimulation is also a treatment option if you have obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD appears to arise when electrical circuits conveying signals between the emotional and the decision-making parts of the brain become stuck in feedback loops. That leads to people compulsively repeating actions because the anxieties associated with not having done the task don’t get erased. A jolt of electricity seems to clear the brain jam, however. Similar treatments seem to be a cure for depression in some people.
 
And, true to Hollywood, we are now manipulating memories. We’re not yet at the virtual holiday stage, but mice are starting to have some strange experiences. Last month it was reported that electricity delivered to a mouse’s hippocampus gave it a memory of receiving a shock to the foot.
 
Hence the need for ethical review: it is easy to see how this could eventually be used to create a tool for controlling errant prisoners, say, or mental-health patients. Perhaps you remember the electroconvulsive “therapy” punishment in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? It’s still seen as a treatment option for depression but some think it’s too blunt an instrument. Deep brain stimulation is far less blunt – yet who decides just how blunt is acceptable?
 
There are many other issues to face. As we begin our assault on the brain, we will begin to gather information that might turn out to be problematic. Brain experiments are already suggesting that some people have naturally poor control over impulsive actions, and are more prone to criminal or antisocial behaviour. It is important that such information should not get thrown casually into the public sphere.
 
For all the appropriate caution, let’s acknowledge that some of the things we’re learning to do to the brain are really rather exciting. Having a virtual holiday might sound like a bore, but what about having razor-sharp focus at the flick of a switch? The US military is piloting a scheme that is mind-bendingly futuristic: a DC electrical current applied to the brain that in effect puts you into a high-concentration zone. With “transcranial direct current stimulation”, learning is accelerated and performance in tasks that require mental focus is significantly enhanced.
 
The Americans are using it to improve sniper training but that won’t be the only application. One day soon you might unplug yourself and utter the immortal words: “I know kung fu.” Hollywood races ahead, but we’re not as far behind as you might think.
Jack Nicholson in the film version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.