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Mental Autonomy Must be Preserved as Tech Advances


The long-enshrined rights to freedom of thought and opinion should be protected in the design, use and regulation of technology and artificial intelligence.

We like to believe that our thoughts and opinions are private, and that it is up to us how we make up our own minds. Our mental autonomy is a fundamental aspect of what makes us individuals. But it is being threatened as technology increasingly monopolizes attention and directs our thoughts and opinions.

As AI (artificial intelligence) becomes more embedded in daily life, these trends are set to continue. While there is much more AI in the home than a few years ago (smartphones, virtual assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant, heating controls and so on), in a few years’ time this period may be seen as one in which there is relatively little reliance on AI in daily life. It will also be seen as the moment of opportunity to entrench rules and principles that should act as guardrails around the space in which AI and tech should develop.

Current social media thrives on the ‘attention economy’ – in crude terms, the longer we spend on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, the more money those companies make. In order to fuel the attention economy, social media harnesses the same mental processes as addictions to gaming, drugs, or alcohol, according to Professor Anna Lembke, a specialist in addiction at Stanford University.

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