Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Future is Closer Than You Think

The day of using science to manipulate unwilling subjects has drawn just a bit closer. Here are some bits from a fascinating post by Mo Costandi in the UK's Guardian newspaper's Neurophilosophy blog:
Magnetic pulses applied to a specific region of the frontal cortex can influence peoples' willingness to lie spontaneously or tell the truth, according to a new study by researchers from Estonia.

The findings, published recently in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, suggest that manipulations of brain activity could be an effective way of obtaining truthful responses from defendants and criminal suspects, raising more ethical questions about the application of neuroscience technologies in the legal profession.


The ability to detect deception accurately is of great interest to the legal profession and security agencies, for obvious reasons. The use of brain scanning data as evidence in courts of law has proven to be highly controversial, not least of all because of doubts about the validity of the data. Some researchers argue that we are now in a position to use functional neuroimaging to detect lies, but the general consensus seems to be that neither the technology nor our understanding of the brain are sophisticated enough.

Bachmann is cautious about how to interpret the new findings, because the sample size of 16 participants is small. He adds that they should be replicated before any firm conclusions can be made about the effects of TMS on spontaneous lying. Even so, the study raises the possibility that TMS could be used to increase the likelihood of getting the truth out of suspects or defendants. It seems likely that some may develop the technique and offer it as a service, as was the case with brain scanning.

"Provided that the method is validated and legal norms are established, it could perhaps be allowed and justified," says Bachmann, "but this should not become a routinely used technique. Basic human rights include cognitive privacy and this would be a clear infringement. If a subject freely agrees, maybe it would make sense, but I foresee heated debates on whether 'knocking truth out of the fellow' can be legalized in principle."
I'm sure the dictatorships and autocrats are clapping with glee. The day when they can reduce their subject population to automatons run remotely by the whims of the ruling class have just taken a big step forward. All hail Big Brother!

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