Can Big Tech read our minds? Nathan Laine/Bloomberg/Getty Images

February 21, 2024   4 mins

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.

You could object that employers are firing employees for what they say, not what they think. But there is an overlap between thought and speech that the law doesn’t recognise. If we start believing that thought only happens inside our heads, then the battle for free thought is already lost. Thought is very much a social process; we think with each other. And in many situations, a group thinking together is more likely to get to the truth than if each individual has only their own mental biases to rely on. Thought should be regarded as both private and social, internal and external.

We also think externally with technologies: in our diaries, drafting documents on a computer, or googling something on an iPhone. And as technology is increasingly pervasive, we think externally more than ever before. Yet widespread online surveillance, and the ability of law enforcement to access our devices, means that the more we use these technologies, the more we expose our thinking to punishment. And those technologies may yet be turned against us.

“Thought is both private and social, internal and external.”

So does the law protect such external thinking? While our right to freedom of thought is more than 75 years old, we are only deciding now what it means in practice. There’s a good chance that the legal profession will adjudge that thinking only happens inside our heads, in our “forum internum”. But a right to freedom of thought that does not protect external thinking is not worthy of the name. We should not put up with such crumbs from the high table of law.

Which leaves us with an even more fundamental threat to free thought: ourselves. Whereas free speech is never out of the headlines, freedom of thought rarely features in the national conversation. An alien observer would probably conclude that humans are more concerned with the liberties of their tongues than their minds.

The truth is that firing off opinions is often a far more pleasant pastime than thinking. Thinking is hard and anxiety provoking, and one can get through life quite well, perhaps best, without ever doing it. As one psychologist argued, evolution has encouraged us to make decisions using the least possible energy, leading us to become “cognitive misers” who are “as stupid as we can get away with”. We will do anything to distract from our thoughts. A 2014 study found that when students were left in a room for 15 minutes with the choice of either thinking or giving themselves electric shocks, two-thirds of men and a quarter of women electrocuted themselves.

It has never been easier to drown out our inner thoughts. Increasingly, we flood the spaces where thought was once possible, such as when washing-up, walking or weeding the garden, with other people’s thoughts. We gorge on podcasts, YouTube, Spotify playlists — anything to stop us having to sit with the anxiety of thought. We have become addicted to digital benzos.

We also steer away from freethinking because it can threaten our sense of belonging. The more you believe the falsehoods of your particular political tribe, the better a member you are. And so it’s easier to not think about anything too much. As the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue, “most people make their party choices based on who they are, not what they think” and act based on “emotional attachments that transcend thinking”. We then become more loyal to our party than to reality. Especially since, ultimately, we want to act more than we want to think. If someone offers us an idea or cause that will justify our actions, we will love them for it.

These feelings are exacerbated in a democracy, where, in order to be taken seriously, one must have an opinion to-hand on every topic. What matters is to be able to loudly articulate this opinion, rather than its truth. Democracy encourages us to feel as though we’re thinking when forming these opinions — when most often, we are not. We keep happily banging our own podiums like millions of sweaty Khrushchevs.

If we truly want to protect the right to think freely, we need to radically reorganise society: governments must support freethought; corporations can neither be allowed to monopolise information flows nor make earning a living dependent on our opinions. And, most important, we must start to value thinking far more highly. Then, when the machines come, as they inevitably will, we will clearly see both how they threaten freethought as well as how they can support it. Musk may have proclaimed himself a “free speech absolutist” — but whether Neuralink technology will uphold his principles remains to be seen. I have a feeling we might not like it.

Simon McCarthy-Jones is Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology, Trinity College Dublin.