Opinion | The Fight for Your Kids’ Brains Has Already Begun

There’s a new threat to children’s freedom of thought from A.I. and neurotechnology.
Opinion | The Fight for Your Kids’ Brains Has Already Begun

I appreciated Heitner’s gentle encouragement to parents to stop tracking their teenagers’ every movement and online conversation. I’ve long been opposed to LoJacking kids and believe that they deserve a reasonable degree of freedom of movement. As I wrote in 2020, monitoring younger children and teens has the potential to make them more anxious because it can send a message that they’re always potentially unsafe — or that we don’t trust them.

I also worry that when we track them too closely, we’re priming them to accept a level of surveillance from authority that has grave consequences, as outlined by another book that makes my 3 a.m. worries about violated privacy and public shaming via social media seem like child’s play. These days, most parents can imagine the viral video scenario, but fewer of us might have considered that there are potentially greater existential threats to their intellectual and physical freedom looming on the horizon.

In that book, “The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology,” Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke Law School who studies “the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging technologies,” describes a near-future “world of brain transparency, in which scientists, doctors, governments and companies may peer into our brains and minds at will.”

I started the book skeptically, but Farahany convinced me that the reality of brain tracking is much closer than I imagined. She explains that in China, a variety of different employers are already using electroencephalogram, or E.E.G., sensors — a kind of brain wave tracker — to monitor their workers’ fatigue levels, productivity and emotional states.

Just last month, The Times ran an article about Ann Johnson, who had a stroke at 30 that paralyzed her and left her unable to speak. As Pam Belluck reported:

In a milestone of neuroscience and artificial intelligence, implanted electrodes decoded Mrs. Johnson’s brain signals as she silently tried to say sentences. Technology converted her brain signals into written and vocalized language, and enabled an avatar on a computer screen to speak the words and display smiles, pursed lips and other expressions.

When used for good, these kinds of technologies inspire awe — even E.E.G. sensors, when used sensibly and humanely, can help truck drivers and pilots avoid fatigue-related accidents. But Farahany encourages us to think ahead a few decades and ask ourselves: If these technologies are developed without appropriate legal constraints or guardrails — the way social media ran roughshod for years, before lawmakers started pushing back — it puts our civil liberties at risk and could push subsequent generations to greater intellectual and creative conformity.