Our current justice system is based on superstition. I don't say that as a criticism; the system works fairly well, give or take some warts. The superstition that underpins the justice system is called free will, as in the magical ability to make choices independent of your brain's wiring. Society needs to believe criminals have the supernatural ability to ignore their own brain architecture. Otherwise it would be difficult for any jury to convict a perpetrator who, from a scientific perspective, had no choice in the matter.

Science has long understood that a specific brain in a specific environment will always act the same way. Cause and effect are not random beyond the quantum world. Science is the realm of facts, whereas the justice system is more like theater.  Society collectively pretends that free will exists so we can feel right about dispensing legal punishments. And while the system is absurd on some level, it still works quite well. The fear of jail presumably causes some criminal brains to commit fewer crimes. And law-abiding citizens are comfortable with the superstition that jailed criminals have chosen their own bad luck. "Serves ‘em right" is the common view.

But what will happen in the future when our brains are being controlled by third parties, such as machines or doctors? Will we still put criminals in jail? Or will we have sufficient knowledge by then to tinker with the brains of perpetrators and "fix" their criminal tendencies?

Consider the fact that young males commit most of the violent crimes in this world. That tells you that body chemistry, and probably testosterone levels in particular, are part of the cause. We already have the ability - but not the legal right - to chemically transform a violent personality into a non-violent one. We can literally rewrite entire personalities through prescription meds. At the moment, science isn't advanced enough to give an individual criminal a chemical "fix" that is reliable, lasting, and without serious side-effects. But there is no doubt in my mind that science will get to that point.

As science learns more about the architecture of the brain, and portable brain sensors keep improving, I would expect someday we will have digital "hats" that will literally keep our brains tuned and running smoothly by applying stimulation to parts of the brain that need a boost.

For example, I can imagine my digital hat stimulating the creative part of my mind during my morning work hours and stimulating another part of my brain when I exercise.

I could also imagine my digital hat modifying my food preferences so I eat healthier. When I look at cake, my digital hat will stimulate a part of my brain associated with revulsion. When I see leafy vegetables my digital hat stimulates my pleasure centers. Your hat could make you love your spouse more, spend more time with the kids, get more sleep, and so on. In other words, the hat could make you a better version of yourself. Who wouldn't want that?

At some point in your future, the programmer of your digital hat will be more responsible for your actions than you are. Left to your own choice you would have decided to take a nap on the couch. But your digital hat knows you need some cardio, so it stimulates your brain in just the right way to make you want exercise more than a nap. When technology reaches that level of capability, and I think it will, no one will cling to the superstition of free will. We will understand our brains to be the moist part of a programmed system that includes our digital hat, the Internet, and probably some tech support in another country.

You might be thinking you would never wear a digital hat that manipulates your desires and therefore takes away your illusion of free will. But I'll bet the digital hat would make you feel so great that it would be physically addictive. The moment you put it on, it starts stimulating your pleasure centers. Before long you won't be willing to take it off.

Eventually humans will all become mindless slaves to whoever owns the patents for the digital hats. And that's not a bad thing because each of us will be delighted with our lives every minute. We might come to understand that in the past we were mindless zombies to the randomness of our brain chemistry and environment. In the future we will be improved versions of mindless zombies, programmed to be productive citizens who enjoy every minute of life. Being a mindless zombie won't be such a bad thing.

My prediction is that smartphone technology will migrate into hats, and at that point we will start to see technology that allows your phone to communicate directly with your brain. For example, you might have seen reports that scientists can produce grainy pictures of your dreams by reading your brain with external sensors. When that technology becomes portable and built into your hat, all you need to do is think about calling someone and your phone will start dialing. At some point I predict the hat will be able to apply small electrical stimulation to different parts of the brain to create different effects. That's when the hat becomes responsible for your actions more than whatever is left of "you."

Would you trade your illusion of free will for a life of continuous satisfaction?

You say you won't.

But you will.

Your choice in the matter is an illusion.

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+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2013
At least the advertising industry will go away entirely. Instead of generating all these commercials, print ads, billboards, and banners to make me buy a Coke, they'll just push the desire into my hat I suppose.
Jan 17, 2013
As long as you are capable of knowing that you are wearing a hat, you have free will
Jan 17, 2013
I wonder if the "persuadertron" is still the central plot device in the Syndicate game that came out last year. Meant to play that, but didn't get around to it.
Jan 17, 2013
Digital hats are a double edged sword. Yeah they could make people nicer, but a glitch, bug, virus, or hacker could turn harmless Mr. Nice Guy into a brutal, murdering, serial rapist. Or you could hack several someone of the opposite sex to find you as the only sexually attractive person on the planet (feminists wouldn't be happy), or you could reprogram their sexual behaviors or willingness to breed (political land mines galore there). Or the food and tobacco companies could hack the right government officials so we'd all be chain-smoking, 500 lbs gluttons who think getting cancer at 35 is fashionable.

Too much potential for abuse to be allowed.
Jan 17, 2013
This post is the plot of Harrison Bergeron, which did not end well. Not for Harrison anyway.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2013
See Manna, by Marshall Brain (marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm) for a free, online book detailing exactly this concept.
Jan 17, 2013
Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose made an extremely convincing case that the human mind is not a simple algorithmic machine and even went so far as to show that the proof for one of his theorems cannot be proven using any algorithmic method - which suggests there is something very different about biological intelligence. Penrose is one of the most serious scientists in the world. So it hardly seems to me that it is a scientific given that human behavior is predestined and that free will is an illusion. Penrose's suggestion is that neurons are doing far more than we give them credit for and the explanation for human consciousness and intelligence probably lies on the boundary of the quantum and the macro - namely, in a realm that is not yet well understood. Consciousness seems like a very unique and uncommon property in the universe. It's not a property we share with rocks or trees or ice cubes. And no one understands what makes it work - except that it has something to do with the activity of neurons - which is probably not (yet) understood.

There is a chemical basis for human behavior - and any substance which affects neurochemistry and the activity of neurons will have a gross impact on behavioral patterns and on intellect itself. Too much dopamine leads too loose and disjointed, irrational thinking - even psychosis. This is how prescription drugs work - but illegal drugs as well. The problem is the effect is very general and nonspecific. So I am skeptical that you could design a hat as you propose - which, as I envision it, is sort of like a modern insulin sensor/delivery system for the brain. It's not completely farfetched - some of the technology has existed for years - but the brain isn't a simple organ and doesn't respond in simple predictable ways like the tissues that insulin acts on.

But again I am led to Penrose - and his next book, Shadows of the Mind, and the epilogue of that, where he asks: what's the point? I believe there is inherent value in human intelligence and there is value in being what we are. If we all started wearing a hat like this, it seems to me we would be corrupting that value. And we would be reducing ourselves to the level of simpler machines following in algorithmic pathways ... and you are truly left with the question: what's the point? If that's what we are evolving towards, it seems the natural endpoint of our species is to become a hill of ants, because our society would no longer value human individuality or the human spirit. Somehow I don't think the point of human evolution is to go backwards.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2013
Aldous Huxley - Brave New World, written in 1931. No hats, but the same level of mind-control. Science!
Jan 17, 2013
Congrats, Scott, you just invented the Blue Pill.
Jan 17, 2013
This topic has been covered by many. But I don't know who they are.... except for Red Dwarf. Where players enjoy the game of Better Than Life. It's a whole book, I think, and an episode of the TV series (vague ancient memories). Here's where they end a game.... although many people opt to keep playing even to death because, after all, it's better than life. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oF14OZKOI68
Jan 17, 2013
The only thing that would be required to make the digital hat acceptable to most people is the illusion of control. Why not have an app which allows you to control sliders controlling how much pleasure different activities bring? You could push up the exercise level when you plan to exercise, and push up the concentration slider when you need to study. The programmer of the digital hat would have limits so that people can't just put themselves into an orgasmic state for laying on the couch.

Hacking of digital hats to get around the pleasure limits would be intense initially, but anyone who successfully hacks their own hat to maximize pleasure wouldn't live long (no desire or ability to eat/drink/sleep) and so would curb itself.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2013
If your intent was to lessen my enthusiasm toward my smartphone, you have succeeded.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2013
Can't wait to hack my hat!

Security is my only worry, will MS updates and AVG free keep me safe?

Will I be able to remote login to my wife? Could I access distributed thinking power to frame my reply, when my wife asks me: "does this look okay on me?"

What happens if I have a BSOD when I wake up in the morning?

oooooh! Can I encrypt my brain so the man can't get me?
+22 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2013
<i>Our current justice system is based on superstition. I don't say that as a criticism; the system works fairly well, give or take some warts. The superstition that underpins the justice system is called free will, as in the magical ability to make choices independent of your brain's wiring. Society needs to believe criminals have the supernatural ability to ignore their own brain architecture. Otherwise it would be difficult for any jury to convict a perpetrator who, from a scientific perspective, had no choice in the matter.</i>

That isn't supported by history. This notion was actually the de rigur thought in the 30s and 40s, and it led to lobotomies, forced sterilization, mass abortion, massive use of the death penalty, and eugenics.

After all, if we are just moist machines, then we have a duty to engineer the best machines (eugenics, sterilization, abortion.) We have a duty to repair the machines when we can (lobotomies) and destroy them when they are too far gone to repair (death penalty.)
Jan 16, 2013
Not only will the hat make you want to wear it, but insurance companies will jack up the premiums for (or not cover at all) non hat wearers; assuming that is that the government doesn't enact laws to make the hat compulsory. Enter from stage left the patroit act to collect all the information the hat is collecting, et voila your utopian/dsystopian future has arrived.
Jan 16, 2013
If this hat thing really works out to be a good and doable thing in the future then I'm sure our keepers will make them mandatory. At least in public. I forsee "Hatless Bars" popping up around town. A place where you can go to let your hair down. Or 'take your hat off' and stay a while.
Jan 16, 2013
[ We already have the ability - but not the legal right - to chemically transform a violent personality into a non-violent one. ]

The reverse is also true, if this story is correct:

Personally, I'd love a digital hat. Amongst other things, I'd use it to stop wasting so much time surfing the web reading blogs.

What I find amusing is that Scott is probably 100% correct that people will see this as an invasion of their free will and reject it -- yet people spend tons of money right now on things to accomplish the same goal, just externally. Personal trainers come to mind. In other words, people don't mind being forced to do something that is good for them as long as they can externalize the responsibility. Or maybe it's OK as long as they aren't happy about it. That sounds closer to the truth, actually.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2013
Stop that....you are scaring me.
Jan 16, 2013
Regarless of free will, the justice system must hold people accountable for their actions. It is the stimulus to get an individual to be accountable for his or her actions.

There was a study with 2 groups of students taking a test. The first was took the test and were monitored for cheating. The second group watched a film that said humans didn't have free will. That second group cheated "significantly" more on the test than the other group. The implication being that if people don't feel responsible for their actions then they won't. They will act more selfishly and impulsive.

We are taught this at a young age. "Clean up your mess." It is an important lesson to learn and their are negative consequences to individuals who don't learn it and the people around them.
Jan 16, 2013
I don't trade it now for drugs that are supposed to make me feel good. I like to be "in control" as much as I can. I at least act selfishly for myself. I don't want another entity controlling my actions while acting selfishly. I want my thought processes between their stimuli and my actions.
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