You’ve been falsely accused of a crime – a crime for which you could receive a life sentence if convicted. The hard evidence is shaky at best. The prosecution comes to you with a new idea: attach 32 electrodes to your scalp and listen to a series of sentences while the electrical fields caused by brain activity are recorded and analyzed. The scientists claim that your pattern of brain activity will be different depending on whether you were there (thus, it will reflect ‘experiential memories’) or if you have only heard about the event.
This is the scenario reflected in a recent International Herald Tribune article sent to me by a friend. Indian courts are now accepting results from the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test (BEOS) as evidence in criminal trials. A young woman accused of murdering her husband was convicted to life in prison based in part on results from a BEOS test. The woman, Aditi Sharma, insists she is innocent.
The IHT article reports that the judge wrote a 9-page defense of BEOS in his decision on the case, though there is no scientific consensus as to the accuracy of this test. It has not been reported in any peer-reviewed scientific journals and has not been carefully evaluated by the neuroscientific community as a whole. The article, though, is unclear as to whether the BEOS evidence was the deciding factor in the case or if it was solely corroborating evidence that supported the prosecution’s argument. The 9-page defense makes it seem as though the BEOS test was an important part of this conviction.
In a comment on a relevant post on the Neuroethics and Law Blog, Dr. Lawrence Farwell is quick to distance this technology with his own work on ‘brain fingerprinting‘ – a peer-reviewed and highly-tested alternative that is allowed as scientific evidence in US courts.
The prospect of neuroimaging-based lie detection technologies is nothing new and has been featured in The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and The New Atlantis as a possible alternative to the modern polygraph machine. There is certainly an appealing quality to looking inside a person’s skull, where surely the truth must be hiding in a pattern of bloodflow, synchronous neural firing, or synapse formation. Maybe one day a criminal won’t even need to be asked any questions at all – we would only need to attach some electrodes and slide him/her inside a magnet and do some complicated physics and statistics to compare his brain to an enormous database of all kinds of criminals and non-criminals. This is just one way we may be able to decide guilt or innocence in a completely objective way.
Am I not the only person absolutely terrified by this prospect? The worst part is, it’s not that unfeasible. It will certainly take a while for this latter scenario to become realized, but a slew of recent developments suggests this may someday be possible. A group out of UC Berkeley has recently reported on a striking ability to identify which of a large pool of images a person is looking at using fMRI and a sophisticated receptive field model (Nature article), and a different group from Carnegie Mellon University is using image classifiers gathered from other subjects to accurately decide which image a given subject is viewing (PLoS One article). The popular press reported on these findings as “mind reading” and brought up the obvious possibility of neuroimaging-based lie detection.
Right now, though, as long as scientists are appropriately conservative about the application of these technologies beyond the realms for which they are ready, we have nothing to worry about. I think this quote from the IHT article sums things up pretty nicely:
“I find this both interesting and disturbing,” Henry Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford Law School, said of the Indian verdict. “We keep looking for a magic, technological solution to lie detection. Maybe we’ll have it someday, but we need to demand the highest standards of proof before we ruin people’s lives based on its application.”
If you’re interested in this topic (neuroscience and law), be sure to check out the conference videos from Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law first annual conference. This topic, among many others, were addressed by experts in the field, including lawyers, forensic psychologists, neuroscientists, and geneticists.