Friday, September 26, 2008

Convicted By Your Brain

A few days ago a woman in India was convicted of murdering her fiance. A prime piece of evidence was a BEOS, Brain Electrical Oscillation Test, of her own brain.

It works like this: Prosecutors read aloud to the suspect a description of the murder, all couched in first person ("I bought arsenic," etc.) while she had electrodes attached to her head that showed which areas of the brain lit up at what point. She was also read neutral statements ("The sky is blue.") The "pattern" of electrical responses in her brain supposedly showed that she had "experiential knowledge" of the murder, rather than merely having heard about it.

This has, understandably, set off a storm of controversy, in and out of India. The specific technology is new, although it builds on a large body of brain-study literature (some of which I refer to in my current ASIMOV'S story, "The Erdmann Nexus.") But this is a new application of brain studies, and it has ethicists shuddering. Proponents point out that the suspect agreed to the test, but the press has speculated that she may have done so to avoid what she thought might be a brutal police interrogation if she refused.

In the United States, not even polygraph results are admissible in court. We also have the Fifth Amendment providing protection against self-incrimination, presumably including by your own brain. This is a draconian version of Big Brother is Watching You:

His Honor the Judge is Watching You. With your help.


TheOFloinn said...

In the demonstrative regress once employed in science, one must not only show that the hypothesis accounts for the data, but that no other hypothesis accounts for the data. Perhaps experiential knowledge accounts for certain brain areas lighting up. But does =only= experiential knowledge do so?

Mark said...

Mike makes a valid technical point. My philosophical/moral concern is that once the price of this technology drops (inevitable) it WILL be used by a majority to enforce majoritarian values, just as has been happening in the U.S.S.A. since the Reagan Regime ramrodded mandatory piss testing for work into place.

Technologies can be used for good and bad: A person can defend herself against assault by using a weapon; jack-booted thugs can use weapons to easily eliminate the unpopular.

I can't help but think that 1984 was 24 years ago, and while the style is different, too much of Eric Blair's nightmare has come to pass :-(

Sorry about the bummer diatribe of a posting....

James A. Ritchie said...

Prove to me that this technology is 100% reliable, and I'm all for it. Until then, it's just about teh scariest thing I've seen.

James A. Ritchie said...

Prove to me that this technology is 100% reliable, and I'm all for it. Until then, it's just about teh scariest thing I've seen.

Unknown said...

This is scary, only because if more countries accept this tech as viable eventually it may be used here.

One can only hope that it will be proven to be not 100% reliable and thus not admissible - just as polygraphs are.

g d townshende said...

There is no way I'd want to be subjected to a BEOS test to determine my guilt or innocence. Absolutely no way.

Mark said...

I've been reading Rob Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax series. This is a topic he examines in those stories. Next on my list is Brin's The Transparent Society.

As far as such invasion of privacy goes, if we lived in a society that truly valued human diversity and the right to live one's life as one sees, if our society's governments truly prevented themselves and us from infringing such rights of one another, I honestly wouldn't care. Unfortunately, the modus operandi seems to be to do unto each other as much shite as one can.

It's no coincidence that so many people long for a frontier. The farther away an individual or small group is from a larger, oppressive majority, of course the more they're able to feel Freedom.

Marionella said...


great blog!

I have a question: I am trying to write a play inspired by the story of aditi sharma (the indian woman that got subjected to a brain scan and then convicted based on that), and I am looking for literature about BEOS, neuroscience (for dummies) and other related topics... since I'm completely new to this field (I have a legal background), I have no idea where to look, and what would be good articles to get an idea about the scientific side of the subject...

I would really appreciate any help!

Thanks a lot!