A Neutron Bomb Set to Detonate: Psychedelics and Surveillance Capitalism

What happens when AI and neuroscience are fused with psychedelic experiences

A business news announcement on April 9 heralded Compass Pathways Investor Peter Thiel’s new stake in a device that allows “ computer interfaces to help treat people with mental conditions.”

Psyber, Thiel’s newest acquisition, is a brain computer interface which enables direct communication between a human brain and an external device.

Psyber forges surveillance capitalism to a stilletto point, and plants it in your cerebral cortex.

A prototype brain computer interface already exists, demonstrated on a monkey with brain implants playing Pong, brought to you by Elon Musk’s new company Neuralink. Musk described it as a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires that go into your cerebral cortex.

As neuroscience, and AI-enhanced machine interactions fuse in the psychedelic space, ethical and existential dimensions more than ever become a factor in the direction of psychedelic science. A once unthinkable scenario becomes possible: an implanted mind/brain computing interface coupled with a mood-and-mind-altering psychedelic drug administered for the purposes of curing your OCD, or treating your intractible depression. A cure? Maybe.

Here’s a scenario: Let’s say, you suffer from OCD, or depression, and you decide psychedelic medicine is the answer. You allow Thiel’s Psyber device to be implanted into your brain to augment your treatment.

During your curative psychedelic session, an AI interface allows you to view a screen, and provides cues to induce thoughts that make you feel better, to cure you so to speak. The cues can at first be passive — you view them on the screen, you respond to them automatically, positively or negatively. You feel better, or maybe nothing changes. The more you react positively to certain cues (you’re being measured by electrodes implanted into your brain, and by body monitoring equipment the whole time) the more the learning AI system provides better, more effective ones, enhancing them with music, or even scents, for example, which are emotionally evocative.

Not only does the AI interface have access to all the biological and emotional data you’re providing, it has access to the entire collected, collated, retrievable database of knowledge of every fact ever compiled, written, studied and experienced by any being, human or animal with OCD or depression which it can riffle through, combine, assess and recontextualize to maximum effect as aid in treating your condition.

Your limbic system is aroused; and you are at your most susceptible. Then, at some point, the AI system takes over: instead of your actually responding to an external cue — what you see on the screen; the music you hear; the scent of lavendar — the AI system directly triggers your highly-suggestive, highly vulnerable brain on psychedelics. Without your knowing, or perhaps even caring, the AI system takes over, directly modulating your mood and behavior for you by stimulating your brain through implanted electrodes. It can’t happen, you think. It can. Simply put: if a signal can travel in one direction down a wire-or wireless-network, it can travel the other way too.

Harvard University Graduate School of Business Professor Emerita Dr Shoshana Zuboff defines “surveillance capitalism” as “information capitalism [which can] predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control.” Social and economic interactions are reimagined as machine processes.

Dr Zuboff introduced the concept of surveillance capitalism in a 2015 paper: “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization.”

If this kind of influence can occur in a psychedelic context, where else can it happen? Everywhere, every day, all the time, in the background, without your explicit knowledge. If you believe otherwise, have a look at an experiment carried out by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, elucidated in the film “ The Great Hack.” Or look at what happens when you particate in a Pokemon Go Festival.

Surveillance capitalism does the opposite of enhancing and improving human bonds — the hollow promise of Facebook, once upon a time-such as those formed when we transact with other people directly, whether shopping in a physical store, renting rooms from a landlord, buying cars, learning how to play the piano, getting sick, getting well, or going on guided psychedelic trips with other human beings. It eliminates them.

“Consensual participation in the values from which legitimate authority is derived, along with free will and reciprocal rights and obligations, are traded in for the universal equivalent of the prisoner’s electronic ankle bracelet” she writes.

The Psyber development would not be possible without the remarkable progress of neuroscience over the past 30 years. We know more about neuroanatomy, brain circuitry, cellular structure, neurotransmitters, metabolic pathways, and feedback loops than anyone would have thought possible back in those days. Data collation around your psychedelic experience in the interest of ‘understanding’ and ‘science’ is already underway — and yes, you will give your data away if you really want to use an app to accompany you on your trip. There are several out there.

This is “surveillance capitalism” reductio ad absurdem — or else surveillance capitalism marching in an inevitable progression of technological advancement to its next stage.

Dr Zuboff frames the difference between the old, pre-surveillance form of capitalism as the difference between a panopticon (a prison built around a central tower surrounded by prison cells) and a world in which all habitats “inside and outside the human body are saturated with data and produce radically distributed opportunities for observation, interpretation, communication, influence, prediction and ultimately modification of the totality of action….there is no escape from Big Other. There is no place to be where Big Other is not.”

There is no better means to manipulate someone than having the tools of manipulation directly to hand. For sentient beings these include access your deepest fears and most intimate feelings and experiences. Normally, these innermost feelings are yielded privately, and only when one is at ones most vulnerable, most open, and trusting.

During a psychedelic trip it is possible to gather information about the most frightening experiences a person has ever endured; the most traumatic, the most joyful, the most hoped-for and the most anxiety-riven. Each of these instances, once identified and tracked through the video recordings of your facial expressions, and via the implanted brain electrode, and continuous autonomic nervous system monitoring, yield a treasure trove of information and eventually extractable data about you, and how you respond to the world. Once Big Other has access to these most interior of truths about you, it is in the position not only to manipulate you by luring you towards or averting you away from behaviors and decisions, but also by means of the intracranial implant to control you directly through targeted electrical impulses into your brain.

The currency of surveillance capitalism is power and control.

The possibility of gathering data from someone’s inmost self during a psychedelic trip adds a horrifying dimension to data collection. Passive influence and behavioral modification as tools of manipulation are left in the dust, once Big Other has direct access to your interior.

Originally published at https://psychedelicrenaissance.substack.com. See the original newsletter for a more thorough investigation.

Writer for NYT, Sci Am Nat‘l Mag Award. Climate, mental health, wild things. erica.rex@gmail.com. Newsletter https://psychedelicrenaissance.substack.com/

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