Brain Scans Used to Convict Woman of Murder in India

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The New York Times is reporting that an Indian criminal court accepted a brain scan as evidence of guilt in a murder trial in India earlier this year. The developer of the the Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature (BEOS) test claims that it uses electrodes to detect when regions of the brain "light up" with guilty knowledge.

http://www.newyorker.com/images/2007/07/02/p233/070702_r16377_p233.jpg

According to the Times:

The woman, Aditi Sharma, was accused of killing her former fiancé, Udit Bharati. They were living in Pune when Ms. Sharma met another man and eloped with him to Delhi. Later Ms. Sharma returned to Pune and, according to prosecutors, asked Mr. Bharati to meet her at a McDonald's. She was accused of poisoning him with arsenic-laced food.

Ms. Sharma, 24, agreed to take a BEOS test in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra. (Suspects may be tested only with their consent, but forensic investigators say many agree because they assume it will spare them an aggressive police interrogation.)

After placing 32 electrodes on Ms. Sharma's head, investigators said, they read aloud their version of events, speaking in the first person ("I bought arsenic"; "I met Udit at McDonald's"), along with neutral statements like "The sky is blue," which help the software distinguish memories from normal cognition.

For an hour, Ms. Sharma said nothing. But the relevant nooks of her brain where memories are thought to be stored buzzed when the crime was recounted, according to Mr. Joseph, the state investigator. The judge endorsed Mr. Joseph's assertion that the scans were proof of "experiential knowledge" of having committed the murder, rather than just having heard about it…

Ms. Sharma insists that she is innocent.

As the Times points out, most U.S. experts doubt that the BEOS technology has been propoerly validated. However, neuroscience researchers are working toward creating such a "truth machine." As the Times notes:

"As we enter more fully into the era of mapping and understanding the brain, society will face an increasing number of important ethical, legal and social issues raised by these new technologies," Mr. [Hank] Greely, the Stanford bioethicist, and his colleague Judy Illes wrote last year in the American Journal of Law & Medicine.

If brain scans are widely adopted, they said, "the legal issues alone are enormous, implicating at least the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution."

"At the same time," they continued, "the potential benefits to society of such a technology, if used well, could be at least equally large."

Back in 2001, I looked at the status of brain scanning technologies and pointed to some of the possibilities that fully validated brain scanning technologies would offer for abuse by government and some implications for the future of privacy:

…James Halperin, author of the 1996 science fiction novel The Truth Machine.., notes an interesting convergence in current fMRI and brainwave research since his fictional "Cerebral Image Processor" measured a combination of electrical activity and blood flow. In The Truth Machine, Halperin illustrates the benefits and problems that the pervasive availability of an infallible lie detector would cause society. It is easy to see some of the benefits -- detecting would-be terrorists, finding politicians who tell the truth during campaigns, detecting honesty in meeting contractual obligations. But what about those areas of life we would like to keep private, say, one's sexual orientation, or unusual religious beliefs, or drug habits, or taste in pornography? Halperin suggests that right now, many of us tolerate laws and regulations on many of these private activities because we know that we are not likely to be caught when we violate them. In a world where the truth can be known absolutely, Halperin thinks laws regulating many private activities would be repealed and there would be areas of life in which the use of a truth machine itself would be banned.

Whole column here

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  1. Brain scans are hogwash. Invisible bite marks are the best indicator of guilt or innocence.

  2. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

  3. Yes, such devices would never be abused or tampered with, and all analysts would be impartial and not at all in hock to the prosecution.

  4. The Truth Machine

    (Anyone with a good memory will know this is a special SugarFree flashback episode…)

  5. The technique is at least as good as a polygraph.

    Not that this is a very high bar.

  6. Also, NutraSweet, don’t forget the “Probationers” concept in Sundiver.

    For those who haven’t read it, everyone is subjected to a “violence test” that tracks where your eyes initially, involuntarily go to when shown various violent and sexual images. If your eyes go the wrong places, you are deemed to be potentially violent and are labeled a Probationer. They implant a chip in your ass and you are not allowed to go certain places.

  7. re: Polygraphs

    The thumbtack trick works. I beat a lie-detector that a cop brought in for a psychology class demonstration. Of course speed or downers work fine too.

  8. The technique is at least as good as a polygraph.

    That bad, huh?

  9. Off-topic

    Jezebel’s Two-Minutes Hate on Reason’s own Cathy Young.

    “Oh noes! When we say hateful things people take it as evidence of us saying hateful things! How could we have ever foreseen that strategy?”

    Third the way down on the first page.

  10. Big Spoilers ahead:

    The Truth Machine ended a little Brave New World-like to me. Basically by the end of it they had reduced the machine to the size of a watch which everyone wore. Kids were bascially raised with no ability to lie.

    I guess I have always been of the opinion that humanity should learn not to lie because it’s wrong and not because of some artificial gizmo. I mean if you have no option to the wrong thing how virtuous are you?

    I imagine most drama would probably be pretty dull.

    Also I can’t believe someone wouldn’t come up with an effective counter measure to this eventually. Enough so that there remains a significant amount of doubt about the result at least.

  11. I spend all my time working with EEG, and I can say quite confidently that this is a bunch of horseshit. I’m, like, an expert and stuff.

  12. My very original prediction: If “truth machines” ever become available, the first thing politicians will do is exempt themselves for ever and under all circumstances by passing the “Mother of all Absolute Immunities Act”.

  13. It’s BEOS, Beotch!

  14. I’m no expert on brain scanning technology or capabilities. That disclaimer aside, skepticism is definitely warrented here.

    Extraordinary claims …

  15. I work in psychiatric neuroscience research, we use fMRI, EEG, and psychophysiology (sort of like what is done in a lie detector). The idea that this could become far better than lie detectors is completely believable, but that it would be perfectly accurate is far fetched. I would be worried about the illusion of perfection causing juries to convict when there was little other evidence, or even evidence that would result in a Not Guilty normally.

    However, if it were used in non-criminal instances, such as for politicians listening to their speeches or campaign promises, I would be all for that.

  16. There was actually a Law & Order episode where they used this.

  17. 1) Damn! Beat to the Dr. Hayne (? Dr. Haines) reference. I was going with “Well, I think Mississippi has the solution to the many appeals coming!”

    2) We are very, very soon entering the age when anything can be followed with the phrase “this happened in a Law & Order episode.” And that’s without the upcoming “Law & Order: Transit Police”, “Law & Order: Parking Authority”, and the dreaded “Law & Order: Transportation Security Authority”

  18. Well, law and order (whatever version) has moved more and more towards copying the news for stories.

    They used to occasionally get very loose story ideas from articles. Then, they took the idea of a news story and made it the central part of an episode. Now, sometimes they are clearly trying to fight old or current battles based on what’s on TV. If I remember, there was one that was like 99% OJ Simpson trial. They waiver between the last two types of episodes pretty often nowadays, with mixed results.

  19. Good article but of course I zero in on the porndog comment, lol. The majority of pornography tends to make the viewer more sexist with each repetitious viewing. As such, it is not harmless.

    http://feminazi.wordpress.com/2007/12/29/porn-statistics-and-research/

    Sorry to ruin your fun but I’m sick to freaking death of the sexism. The type usually labeled “erotica” is not too bad though, and “happy porn” is hilarious and healthy, though it’s difficult to find.

  20. What if they scan your head and don’t find nuthin?
    OR
    Your like Portnoy and think your guilty of everything?
    OR
    Your Charles Manson and think your a good musician?

  21. “My very original prediction: If “truth machines” ever become available, the first thing politicians will do is exempt themselves for ever and under all circumstances by passing the “Mother of all Absolute Immunities Act”.”

    Just like they do when offered a chance to prove their purity by taking a war on some drugs piss test.

  22. Halperin thinks laws regulating many private activities would be repealed and there would be areas of life in which the use of a truth machine itself would be banned.

    I think Mr. Halperin is too optimistic.

  23. fresno Dan,

    Are you a friend of Fresno Bob? Do you know what they did to him?

  24. Personally, I slaughter chickens and goats and read the portents laid bare in their entrails. That’s the only way to be sure.

  25. I hope this does not really happen. Otherwise I will be prosecuted for molesting most of the presidents. That and I will owe millions of dollars that I have embezzled from companies in order not to protest against them.

  26. “Halperin thinks laws regulating many private activities would be repealed and there would be areas of life in which the use of a truth machine itself would be banned.”

    Ha ha, Halperin is such a comedian.

  27. India is so wonderful.

  28. “””If brain scans are widely adopted, they said, “the legal issues alone are enormous, implicating at least the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.””””

    Consent makes most, if not all the legal issues go away.

    A real truth machine would never be banned since it’s in the interest of justice. Hell, we can’t ban no-knock raids which is questionable if it serves justice.

  29. I would gladly submit to this technology if it made my all-too-frequent sessions with Indian phone support personnel any more productive.

    “My web browser is not functioning correctly.”
    “I have pirated programs installed.”
    “The sky is blue.”
    “I own shares of Microsoft stock.”

  30. They should have thrown her in a small container of water and if she floated everyone would know that she was guilty.

  31. Mythbusters has already disproven this means of truth detection. Grant was able to fool the machine by thinking of many things at once–his brain lit up like a Christmas tree.

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