At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, several companies displayed brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, which is all about directing computer and robotic activity by means of thought as the input. It’s a sobering, if fascinating, technological endeavor, considering the potential ramifications of a technology that explores the final frontier of a person’s privacy: his thoughts. And a fascinating person to discuss this frontier with is a person who’s made a decades-long livelihood from reading people’s thoughts: The Amazing Kreskin.
Kreskin is arguably the world’s best-known mentalist, given a television career that dates back to the 1970s, when he made dozens of appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Since then he’s been a frequent guest on other entertainment shows and news programs, and he still makes hundreds of personal appearances every year. So his fame as a mind reader is probably unparalleled.
I had the opportunity to speak at length with Kreskin on Tuesday, and we talked about the emergence of BCI and the growing invasiveness of technology. In fact, it was Kreskin who brought up the technology displayed at CES:
At the electronics show in Las Vegas, there were machines that are being developed to tune into what people are thinking, what their preferences are, and so forth. From a business viewpoint, it seems like a very helpful thing. But if went to the point that the privacy of our most guarded thoughts was easily available, I’m not sure that would be the society that man would enjoy. Privacy is our most priceless possession, and it seems to gradually be disappearing.
I asked Kreskin if he’s an advocate against BCI, and he said he’s not:
I’m not against it, because we can’t really stop anything that’s developing, and of course it has such beneficial usages for people who are paralyzed. So it’s a remarkable phenomenon—50 years ago, this was nothing but science fiction. But it’s creating challenges that we really never before had to contend with. Not that I believe that a machine will ever have the depth of judgment that a human being has, but it seems to be going more and more in that direction.
Kreskin went on to raise a point about privacy that has become a core theme of his recent appearances in the media:
There is now confronting humanity something that never existed before, and that is there are no secrets left on the face of the earth. Anything that’s being put in print, no matter what the modality, will never be erased again.
I challenged Kreskin on the sweeping nature of that statement, noting as an example that governments certainly maintain secrets in the interest of national security. He didn’t disagree, but his elaboration made it clear where he was coming from:
Of course, there are secrets that are held for national security, but most of those secrets have become known. FBI information has been leaked out and become common knowledge. Yes, there will still be secrets, but I’m not sure they will be possible if they’re ever typed on an electronic device. Years ago, Einstein made a very ominous prediction. He said the day will come when man will have information instantly at his fingertips—press a button, and the answer will be there. His great fear was, the day this will happen, it will be the beginning of the erosion of the imagination of mankind. I talk to grade school teachers in the United States, and they say it’s happening already.
But Kreskin recognized the opportunity inherent in this deluge of information:
Communications are going to be even more challenging, due to the fact that we have such a flood of information on so many different levels. It’s very difficult to understand where ideas are coming from, and whether they’re shaded with bias. We see people being influenced by this extraordinary broadcasting of ideas, which is now 24 hours a day. There’s an overcrowding of ideas, a barrage of ideas. But this challenge will be an extraordinary opportunity for the entrepreneur who can sift through this information and find the key ideas.