Why is science trying to read and manipulate our dreams?

Without safeguards, the abuse of dream tech is inevitable

Lee HardingBy 2030, could an agency record everything we dream?

Danish member of parliament Ida Auken thought so.

In her 2016 blog post on the World Economic Forum’s website and republished by Forbes, “Welcome to 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy and Life Has Never Been Better,” Auken envisioned a person saying, “Once in a while I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. Nowhere I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.”

Imagine if a government could become horror movie character Freddy Krueger and turn your dreams against you. Auken did, though she later made a disclaimer: “Some people have read this blog as my utopia or dream of the future. It is not. It is a scenario showing where we could be heading – for better and for worse.”

Let’s call it worse.

Of course, Auken is far from the first to imagine technological dream catchers. In the 1991 sci-fi flick Until the End of the World, the blind gained sight through something reminiscent of today’s virtual reality headset. However, the device also became a tool that recorded dreams. In the 2012 movie Prometheus, a scientist from the year 2093 has an android tell her, “I watched your dreams.”

Yukiyasu Kamitani and his team of researchers have already developed dream reading. In 2013, they hooked subjects up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine and had a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine scan their brains. Shortly after the subjects started to dream, they were awakened and asked what they dreamed about. It was confirmed that certain patterns of brain activity corresponded with the sight of certain objects in dreams.

In recent years, Kamitani’s team has used human fMRI patterns, machine learning and a deep neural network to reconstruct basic images from a person’s mind, including colours. “While the externalization of states of the mind is a long-standing theme in science fiction, it is only recently that the advent of machine learning-based analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data has expanded its potential in the real world,” the researchers stated.

Dream researcher Daniel Oldis has been working along similar lines. In 2017, he collaborated with the University of Texas at Austin to record people’s movements in dreams. Oldis is developing dream-recording technology that would record the speech, images and movement for whole dreams. “This is like the early years of the space race. But in this case, we’re going into the dream space,” Oldis told tech writer Tessa Love.

Oldis believes the ability to capture a dream and make it into an accurate movie is 10 to 20 years away.

Dr. Rubin Naiman, a sleep and dream expert with the University of Arizona, respects Oldis’s research, with mixed feelings.

“There’s something demonic in what he’s doing,” Naiman told Love. “[T]he downside to it is there are so many attempts to represent the dream in waking life rather than to enter the dream directly. The way we approach dreaming is we pull the fish out of water. But eventually, we want to learn to breathe underwater, don’t we?”

Naiman may have had the problem reversed because entering someone’s dreams has the far higher potential to be diabolical. As Oldis said, “We learn from dreams, and it affects our personality.” Studies have found that dreaming helps us process emotions, make short-term memories into long-term ones and even ward off depression. Now imagine what trouble could be wrought when someone enters another’s dreams to change them and their waking behaviour, as in the 2010 movie Inception.

Without safeguards, the abuse of dream tech is inevitable. Consider that Kamitani works at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute (ATRI), whose research and development have four spheres. Life science and computational neuroscience are two of them, as one would expect for a dream researcher. However, ATRI’s other two spheres of research and development are deep interaction science and wireless and communications. Now that is four-fold Inception territory.

Just as children don’t learn reading without also learning writing, any company, intelligence agency or government that can read minds will resort to writing on them. When mind-reading and mind-writing become possible, it would make more sense for the sneaky to work their object while he or she is dreaming. The craziest things could be put into a sleeping mind, but would be harder to recognize or resist than if you were awake.

Without safeguards, the internet of things will include the thoughts and dreams of people and animals (an MIT study in 2001 proved rats can dream). The public and policy-makers should shun such dangerous and unwarranted powers. The world should neither embrace nor even tolerate such a nightmare.

Lee Harding is a research associate for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Lee is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


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