Will Neuralink make thinking a crime?

Feb 21, 2024 by

By Simon McCarthy-Jones, UnHerd. (Image credit: Wikimedia commons)

We care more for freedom of speech than thought.

When he reported that his company, Neuralink, had successfully inserted a chip inside a living person’s skull, Elon Musk unleashed a predictable moral panic. For many, this was the first step towards a world where our thoughts are monitored, assessed and punished. In the distance, the ominous boots of the Thought Police could be heard.

But Musk isn’t the only tech baron causing people to worry about freedom of thought. Before Neuralink’s “brain-reading” technology works out how to decode thoughts from neurons, Artificial Intelligence might be able to read our minds simply by observing our behaviour. Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, recently warned that it might observe our internet browsing history or what we’ve liked on social media in order to manipulate us with persuasive tailored messages.

Yet all this fretting about futuristic mind-reading technologies distracts from the reality that the biggest threats to freethinking today come from carbon, not silicon. Corporate influence is one such menace. Not only can companies control, block or obfuscate our thinking, but employers can also fire people for holding the wrong opinions. Bertrand Russell pointed out the danger of this a century ago. And today, in an age of mobs, online and offline, Left and Right, how many people dare form opinions?

In the UK, we are protected from being discriminated against for our “philosophical beliefs” by the Equality Act 2010. And a series of recent employment tribunal cases have decided that this means people cannot be fired for holding gender-critical beliefs. But, to count as a “philosophical belief”, specific criteria must be met. The thought in question must be “a belief” rather than merely an “opinion or viewpoint”, and one which is “worthy of respect in a democratic society” in a judge’s view. This leaves our more tentative, exploratory ideas — in short, the process of thinking itself — unprotected. But being kept in mental solitary confinement until we have fully formed “philosophical beliefs” is not conducive to thought.

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