Who Stands If Freedom Falls?

April 11, 2017

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The rise of the direct brain-computer interface has epochal implications not only for our concept of human rights, but also for the protracted survival of democratic governance. In the coming years, the international community must take all requisite measures to safeguard the fundamental human right destined to take center stage in the 21st century: freedom of thought.

 

Freedom of thought is the basis of all other freedoms, for we can only achieve what we can conceive. Therefore, the brain is the last bastion of freedom. It houses our opinions, our memories, our feelings, our beliefs and sense of self. Once violated, jail cells can be opened, penitentiaries closed. We shall be imprisoned within ourselves. The deprivation of control over one’s mental processes, cognition and consciousness transforms what was once an individual into an enslaved automaton.

 

This last bastion of freedom is currently under siege. The development of the direct neural interface between the human brain, advanced artificial intelligence and quantum computers heralds a new era. Lips will be silenced, hands will be stilled, and our innermost thoughts, openly revealed. What was once called prayer, will be called prayer still, but for a different God, who never yields. Understanding and forgiveness are not attributes of totalitarian states. They never will.

 

Privacy sacrificed at the altar of technological innovation provides no absolution. Remember that no language is a one-way street. If technology allows computers to read our thoughts and memories, it can also allow them to reverse the process. As a matter of logic, all than can be read, can also be rewritten. In time, this will include neural networks. What then remains of the human being? What then remains of free elections and democratic governance?

 

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a book entitled “The End of History and the Last Man”, in which he argued that with the end of the Cold War, Western liberal democracy would spread throughout the world and become the final form of human government. Unbridled scientific development may still salvage the title of his book, if not the substance of his argument. A world devoid of freedom of thought, can never truly democratic be. When freedom is bound in chains, human beings cease to be. The question posed by Hamlet, will soon a final answer need. Consider what is yours, mine is to be.

 

Now that my stance is clear, of extreme pessimism I will certainly be accused. In my defense, I summon History, of all lawyers the most experienced, despite the one so frequently abused:

 

“Andre is not a Luddite by any means, but Oppenheimer’s life is a cautionary tale that he studied at a very young age. Oppenheimer split the atom only to later confess that he had become death, the destroyer of worlds. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, humanity came to the brink of global thermonuclear annihilation. This was not an isolated instance. More than seventy years after Hiroshima, everyone knows what nuclear proliferation is, but who remembers what the Baruch plan was? For as long as complete nuclear disarmament remains an unattainable goal, what humanity calls peace is simply the armistice of terror, euphemistically referred to as nuclear deterrence. It is truly disheartening that so much of this turpitude was set in motion by the fateful letter written to President Roosevelt by Albert Einstein himself. Throughout my tenure, humanity has never failed to implement the darkest applications of scientific development and technological innovation. But challenging Time for a duel is always a losing proposition; the victor can never be you. Unfortunately, sage words of wisdom are frequently met with derision. For those who object that of the past I am well versed, but of what lies in the present I cannot see, consider this: history is the politics of the past, politics the history of the present. Wherever there is power, you will find me. For as long as pride is the ink of your words, only humility will set you free.”

 

As my lawyer takes its leave, the cautionary lessons are clear. When unbridled science tramples over moral and ethical considerations for political or financial reasons, it becomes a weapon of mass destruction. If science is guided solely by profit maximization, self-destruction must be our lot. If science is guided by a perpetual technological arms race between nations, self-destruction must be our lot. In 1938, German scientists set out to develop a stronger pesticide. It is now called Sarin. Justice may be blind; science never should. Neither can we. So heed the battle cry, from this war no one can flee:

 

“No easy hope or lies

 Shall bring us to our goal,

 But iron sacrifice

 Of body, will, and soul.

 There is but one task for all—

One life for each to live.

 Who stands if Freedom falls?

 Who dies if Freedom lives?”

 

As this question reverberates in your mind, please note that I took the liberty of modifying my favorite stanza of the poem “For All We Have and Are”, by Rudyard Kipling in order to suit the message I wish to convey. May Mr. Kipling forgive me for my intrusion. It was for a noble cause.

 

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©2017 by Andre Lamartin