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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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Jan 16, 2013
"In the future we will be improved versions of mindless zombies, programmed to be productive citizens who enjoy every minute of life."

So technology will be used to make slavery palatable...desirable, even. Jesus, Scott, sometimes your predictions make me despair about the future. You're like the anti-Ray Kurzweil...
 
 
Jan 16, 2013
Not to detract from the interesting speculation about to what extent "who we are" is externally shapeable and will be externally shaped, but there's an error here of a kind often repeated on this weblog.

"Science has long understood that a specific brain in a specific environment will always act the same way." What? I mean, I'm a biophysics guy, and my wife is a biophysics person who does neuroscience -- and "science" understands no such thing. I mean, how exactly would you do that experiment? There's reasons you might believe that -- although there's certainly sources of statistical variability you might imagine -- and there's reasons to look for certain things (like sociological predictors of behavior) _based_ on that idea. But it's not much experimentally _verified_. It would be _damn_ hard to do, at least, right now. Certainly genetically identical mice raised in as close to identical !$%*!$%*!$%*! as we can get can exhibit a spectrum of behaviors.

I'm not arguing for fairies or ESP or anything, I'm just saying, science is a certain thing, and that isn't it.
 
 
Jan 16, 2013
I don't really know about this idea - it seems that the "hat" could be considered another kind of substance abuse writ large. What makes us individuals and allows the creativity and unique !$%*!$%*!$ would be submerged in a world of "standardness"

This is good idea in some ways, but it might be overkill. If anything is needed is something that will address mental illness and excess behaviors that lead to violence.
 
 
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Jan 16, 2013
See mood organ; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Philip K. Dick
 
 
 
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