Playing mind games.                                                          Photographer: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images
Playing mind games.                                                          Photographer: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Big news in the world of science and technology: Scientists just invented a form of telepathy. Actually, it’s a form of noninvasive electronic brain-to-brain communication. The transmission side is pretty simple -- a device just reads your brain waves, and knows when you think of a certain word. Then it transmits a signal to another device, which stimulates a part of the receiver’s brain with a binary signal. The receiver then translates that signal into a word, much as one would interpret Morse code.

Now, a telepathic Yo app might not sound that impressive, but to dismiss the technology because it’s in the early stages would be to ignore all the lessons of history. Telepathic technology -- by which I mean brain-to-computer and computer-to-brain interfaces, and communication between the two -- will get better. At some point within our lifetimes, it will probably get good enough to have interesting applications.

The first uses for this sort of telepathy will be Yo-style notifications and simple alerts. Direct-to-brain notifications are more convenient than having to pull out your cell phone. The real breakthroughs, however, will come as the computer-to-brain interfaces improve (the brain-to-computer side is already racing ahead). Once we know how to make people think of words, all kinds of communication will become easier and more private. You’ll be able to send irreverent messages during meetings, or check sports news while you work out.

Another big advance -- which might come even earlier than words -- is emotions. Currently, brain-computer interfaces can detect emotions. Some technologies, such as deep brain stimulation, can induce emotions directly into the brain. It’s only a matter of time before input is connected with output. This would be a form of telepathic empathy -- a technology that lets you feel some piece of what another person is feeling.

That could be useful in all sorts of communications. It’s always a useful thing to know how people are reacting to what you’re saying and doing. It could also be very useful in various kinds of human relationships, or in psychotherapy. In fact, the consumption value of being able to share emotions with other people directly might be astronomical. With current technology, there is just no way to truly, verifiably, know what a lover, a family member, or a friend is feeling. With telepathic empathy, we will simply be less lonely beings. That will represent an epochal shift in the nature of human life.

The developing technology will pose all sorts of troubling and complex ethical challenges. It should go without saying that people have the right to be alone with their thoughts at any and all times, but this will need to be codified into law. Having other people inside your head is a scary prospect, since one’s own mind is the ultimate refuge. And yes, governments will be able to use this technology to do horrible things. In particular, police interrogations will become more intrusive unless we enact laws to prevent it. And totalitarian governments will be able to use telepathy for the purpose of mind control, much as a human can mentally control a rat’s tail with existing technology.

But in western democracies police have always been restrained mainly by laws, not by lack of technology. And totalitarian governments have always been able to do horrible things to people. The imperative to restrict police and fight against totalitarianism is strong, and will always remain so. Telepathy won’t change that.

If our society remains mostly free, democratic and capitalistic, then the main users of telepathic technology will be consumers. In a free-market economy, consumers only use products that they choose to use, and though there can be long-term side effects or unwanted externalities, most people won’t use a product that makes them feel horrible. That won’t change in the age of telepathy. So, for example, most people (except perhaps psychotherapists) are highly unlikely to subject themselves to a strong dose of other people’s negative emotions. For example, people may hook themselves up to the emotions of others, but they’re probably not going to let themselves be afflicted with second-hand depression. They are also unlikely to pay money to let someone else control their bodies (well, most of them, anyway).

The inventors of the technology put it dryly but accurately in the abstract of their paper:

More fully developed, related implementations will open new research venues in cognitive, social and clinical neuroscience and the scientific study of consciousness. We envision that hyperinteraction technologies will eventually have a profound impact on the social structure of our civilization and raise important ethical issues.

In other words: Prepare yourself, humanity. The cyborg age is coming, and telepathy is going to be a big part of it. As Paul Simon sang, these are the days of miracle and wonder.

To contact the author of this article: Noah Smith at noahsmith.bloomberg@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.