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The text of a letter submitted to the New Scientist in reply to an article by Timothy Revell on a claim that mind-reading devices can access your thoughts and dreams using AI.

As usual there has been no acknowledgement, response or publication by the New Scientist

Timothy Revell’s article Thoughts Laid Bare (29 September, p. 28) illustrates a worrying tendency of AI enthusiasts to over-hype the capabilities of their algorithms. The article suggests that AI offers the possibility of the “ultimate privacy breach” by gaining access to “one of the only things we can keep to ourselves,” namely, “the thoughts in our heads.”

Niels Bohr counselled that the hallmark of science is not experiment or even quantification, but “unambiguous communication.” AI has much to learn from this great physicist. When one scans an individual’s brain one does not thereby gain any access whatsoever to that individual’s thoughts; brains are in the head while thoughts are not. The brain isn’t doing the thinking. As far back as 1877, G H Lewes cautioned: “It is the man and not the brain that thinks.” To quote Peter Hacker, what neuroscientists show us “is merely a computer-generated image of increased oxygenation in select areas of the brain” of the thinking individual. Needless to say, one cannot think without an appropriately functioning brain, but thinking is not located in the brain; no analysis of neural activity will give insights to thoughts because thinking is neither an activity of the mind or the brain.

In ascribing thoughts to the brain or the mind (rather than to the individual) AI falls prey to a fallacy that can be traced all the way back to Aristotle: the “mereological fallacy.”

Dr Hugh Morrison, The Queen’s University, Belfast (retired)

drhmorrison@gmail.com

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