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

Lifestage
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Everything that is wrong with the app Facebook doesn't want over 21s to download

Facebook's new teen-only offering, Lifestage, is just like your mum: it's trying too hard to relate and it doesn't care for your privacy.

Do you know the exact moment Facebook became uncool? Designed as a site to connect college students in 2004, the social network enjoyed nearly a decade of rapid, unrivalled growth before one day your mum – yes, your mum – using the same AOL email address she’s had since her dial-up days, logged on. And then she posted a Minion meme about drinking wine.

Facebook knows it’s uncool. It had a decline in active users in 2014, and in 2015 a survey of 4,485 teens discovered it came seventh in a ranking of ten social apps in terms of coolness. In fact, only 8 per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 19. This is the main reason the corporation have now created Lifestage, an app specifically for under-21s to “share a visual profile of who [they] are with [their] school network”.

Here’s how it works. After signing up and selecting their school, users are prompted to create a series of short videos – of their facial expressions, things they like, and things they dislike – that make up their profile. Once 20 people from any school sign up, that school is unlocked, meaning everyone within it can access one another’s profiles as well as those from nearby schools. Unlike Snapchat (and truly, this is the only thing that is unlike Snapchat) there is no chat function, but teens can put in their phone number and Instagram handles in order to talk. Don’t worry, though, there are still vomit-rainbows.

But with this new development, rather than hosting your mum, Facebook has become her. Lifestage is not only an embarrassing attempt to be Down With The Kids via the medium of poop emoji, it is also an invasive attempt to pry into their personal lives. Who’s your best friend? What do you like? What’s not cool? These are all questions the app wants teens to answer, in its madcap attempt to both appeal to children and analyse them.

“Post what you are into right now – and replace the video in that field whenever you want,” reads the app description on the iTunes store. “It's not just about the happy moments – build a video profile of the things you like, but also things you don’t like.” They might as well have written: “Tell us what’s cool. Please.”

Yet this is more than an innocent endeavour to hashtag relate, and is a very real attempt, like Facebook’s many others, to collect as much data on users as possible. Teens – no matter how many hot pink splashes and cartoon toilet rolls are used to infantilise them – are smart enough to have figured this out, with one of the 16 reviews of the app on the iTunes store titled “Kinda Sorta Creepy”, and another, by a user called Lolzeka, reading:

“I don't like how much information you have to give out. I don't want my phone number to be known nor do I want everyone to know my Instagram and Snapchat. I could not figure out how to take a picture or why my school was needed. Like I said, I don't want all my information out there.”

But Facebook already knows everything about everyone ever, and it’s not this data-mining that is the most concerning element of the app. It is the fact that – on an app specifically designed for children as young as 13 to share videos of themselves – there is no user verification process. “We can't confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school,” Facebook readily admits.

Although the USP of this app is that those over the age of 21 can only create a profile and aren’t allowed to view others, there isn’t a failsafe way to determine a user’s age. There is nothing to stop anyone faking both their age and the school they go to in order to view videos of, and connect with, teens.

Yet even without anyone suspicious lurking in the shadows, the app’s privacy settings have already come under scrutiny. The disclaimer says all videos uploaded to Lifestage are “fully public content” and “there is no way to limit the audience of your videos”. Despite the fact it is designed to connect users within schools, videos can be seen anyone, regardless of their school, and are “viewable by everyone”.

Of course none of this matters if teens don’t actually bother to use the app, which is currently only available in the US. Lifestage’s creator, 19-year-old Michael Sayman, designed it as a “way to take Facebook from 2004 and bring it to 2016”. Although he has the successful app 4Snaps under his belt, there is no guarantee Lifestage will succeed where Facebook’s other app attempts (Notify, Facebook Gifts, Poke) have not.

There are a few tricks Facebook has put in place to prompt the app to succeed, including the fact that users are ranked by how active they are, and those who don’t post enough updates will be labelled with a frowning or (here we go again) poop emoji. Still, this hardly seems enough for an app whose distinguishing feature is “Privacy? Nah.” 

Only time will tell whether the app will appeal to teens, but one thing is certain: if it does, your mum is totally downloading it.

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