Opinion - First person
Mark Lythgoe, University College London and Bob Cervi, manufacturing editor, offer their views on current issues.
If you ask me
Keeping an open mind
It's morning. The year is 2050. You're checking your emails as you brush your teeth, using technology that translates your thoughts into commands that your computer can understand. Simultaneously, the computer assesses your mood (irritable - some things never change) and selects music to soothe you, while letting you know how many tablets you should take for that headache that's just kicked in.
This might sound like a brave new world, but technologies are in sight today that claim to have such capabilities. Perhaps the killer question is not when we'll get them, but how society will change if we do. And, if this kind of 'mind reading' becomes possible, who should have access to the technology and the information it will provide?
Brain Awareness Week, an inter-national programme of events held earlier this month to raise awareness of brain research, offered an opportunity to find out more about the science behind such questions. Coordinated by the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (www.dana.org/edab [new window]) and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives in the USA, the annual event involves around 2,000 schools, universities, charities and organisations in 66 countries.
The idea of using an electrode to detect an electrical brain impulse is almost 100 years old, and it's now possible to take detailed images of the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanners.
While brain imaging for medical use has been progressing, the technology has begun to make its way into the consumer world. This is where the controversy begins. Would you be happy to have a quick brain scan to help you decide which clothes or food to buy? What about a compulsory brain scan as part of a job interview process?
Companies like No Lie MRI Inc in the US are already offering what they claim is "the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history", and they're working on getting their test results admitted in US courts. Where do we draw the line between protection of the individual and protection of society?
Brain scanning technologies are moving closer to home all the time - imagine playing a computer game using only your mind. Neuroengineering company Emotiv claims to have created a headset that turns this fantasy into a reality. Controlling a computer is one thing, but I'm sceptical as to whether it could decipher such complex thoughts, let alone read someone's most personal feelings using this kind of technology? Although I feel we are a long way from such bizarre realities, one thing's for certain - we will have to take a close look at privacy laws and human rights if our personal thoughts start to be read by others. Perhaps we should keep an open mind, but be warned. As my colleague Lewis Wolpert once pointed out to me, an open mind is a very bad thing: everything falls out.
Mark Lythgoe is director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London
Green smoke and mirrors
Multinational manufacturing giants are falling over themselves to be seen as green. 'Sustainability' has become a buzzword in boardrooms alongside that other ethical slogan, 'corporate social responsibility'. Forgive me for being a bit cynical, but isn't the first duty of the boss of a publicly listed company to make (even) bigger profits, in the interests of shareholders? These green halos of the bosses are, I would suggest, mere glowing tricks of light. It's not all flimflam, of course. Major manufacturers say they are making practical improvements. When it comes to electricals, for example, they tell us they are looking to get rid of those pesky 'standby' buttons (although it will take years for new products to feed through). Major players in sectors ranging from computers to cars to fashion are variously pushing their green credentials, through recycling targets, alternative power sources, sustainable materials, and so on. All of which tends to give consumers a warm glow of self-satisfaction. Unfortunately, like the boardroom bosses, we are happily indulging in a self-delusion. I'm not a 'gaia' gloom-monger. I don't believe that the human race is likely to be doomed as a result of global warming. It's just that most green initiatives, from the boardroom to the front room, are a veil over the harsh realities of climate change.
Take the car (or, better, leave it at home). At the Geneva Motor Show this month, legions of automotive company bosses paraded their plans for 'green' hybrid vehicles that do not rely solely on that gradually disappearing and increasingly costly resource, oil. But it turns out that many of these models will be 'mild' hybrids - a wonderful euphemism for 'not really all that green after all'.
Of course, only a fraction of the millions of vehicles produced each year will be hybrids anyway, for the foreseeable future. Oh, and if you don't fancy a big 4x4 hybrid, there are plenty of ultra-minis whose carbon dioxide emissions will be within the European Union's stricter limits when these eventually come into force. Earth can breathe (cough?) a sigh of relief, then.
I heard some leading figures in the UK manufacturing industry talk recently about how British companies should look to the opportunities offered by the brave new world of green technologies.
The problem is, this involves turning biomass into biofuels to power vehicles - which means expoiting the very forests and farmlands we need to protect the ozone layer and feed the vastly growing world population. Or developing magical new solar cells or wind turbines that, let's face it, will simply be sticking-plaster solutions over the huge gash in the ozone layer.
I'm not saying that we should all give up on green and just carry on as normal. But consumers and manufacturers, whether in developed or developing nations, need to stop pretending that low-energy lightbulbs and deleted standby buttons will significantly address global warming. Nor will hybrid executive sedans or family-friendly MPVs do the trick. Otherwise we are simply jumping on the self-delusion bandwagon.