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Brain Scanner Can Read People's Intentions 338

Vainglorious Coward writes "Reality continues to catch up with Nineteen Eighty-Four with the announcement of the development of a brain scanner that can read a person's intentions. 'It's like shining a torch around, looking for writing on a wall,' said the leader of the project, Professor John-Dylan Haynes . Demonstrating his own mastery of doublethink, Haynes continued 'We see the danger that this might become compulsory one day, but we have to be aware that if we prohibit it, we are also denying people who aren't going to commit any crime the possibility of proving their innocence.'"
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Brain Scanner Can Read People's Intentions

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  • by Curien ( 267780 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @04:13AM (#17945544)
    You cannot prove innocence. That's why our verdicts are "guilty" and "not guilty". As much as you can prove anything about reality, you can only show that an event occured; you'll be hard pressed to show that it never did, and it's at least approaching the impossible to show that it wasn't /going to/ happen. Not to mention that intentions and actions are two very different things.

    This is a scary, scary device. Props to the submitter for recognizing the professor's justification as doublethink.
  • by 3.5 stripes ( 578410 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @04:18AM (#17945564)
    Until then you're going to be sitting in front of a gigantic machine. MRIs aren't small portable or cheap at this moment.. and I don't see them following the computer timeline (from room sized boxen to the same power in a cell phone 30 years from now) any time soon.

    Maybe I'm wrong though..

  • by bwd234 ( 806660 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @04:25AM (#17945602)
    "The researchers then used a software that had been designed to spot subtle differences in brain activity to predict the person's intentions with 70% accuracy."

    DA: Your Honor, we are 70% certain that the defendant was thinking about maybe shooting the president.
    Judge: Guilty! Take the defendant outside and have him shot immediately!

    Damn, if there ever was a time to be wearing that tin foil hat...
  • Very Disturbing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nastard ( 124180 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @04:35AM (#17945630)
    There is, as of yet, no laws prohibiting thinking about commiting a crime. The potential to change this is at least as scary as anything else the government or major corporations are doing to peel off our freedoms.

    I'm no tinfoil-hatter, but wow.
  • by MoralHazard ( 447833 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @04:39AM (#17945662)
    You cannot prove innocence. That's why our verdicts are "guilty" and "not guilty".

    These two statements are not logically related. Did you mean them to be? Our verdicts are "guilty" and "not guilty" because under the U.S. system you must be indicted for a crime, at which point you are presumed innocent. The logical question at trial is not "is he innocent", but "is he guilty".

    You can "prove" innocence to the same, imperfect degree that you "prove" guilt: by presenting evidence to that conclusion. A strong, defensible alibi is evidence of innocence, while eyewitness accounts are evidence of guilt. We never formally "prove" guilt in a court, at least not in the mathematical sense--even when sending someone to the Electric Chair, we're merely "pretty sure he's guilty". There's nothing stopping us from creating a hypothetical where U.S. courts presume guilt, and it's up to you to prove your innocence once you've been charged.

    We don't do that because it's stupid in practice--we want to limit the power of those in government, and a "presumed guilty" system encourages abuses of prosecution. It's just too easy to put the mechanisms of the state in service of tyranny, which is kind of what the people that founded this country were trying to avoid. But this has *nothing* to do with whether guilt or innocence can be proven, formally.

  • Don't Scaremonger (Score:5, Insightful)

    by logicnazi ( 169418 ) <> on Friday February 09, 2007 @04:41AM (#17945674) Homepage
    Ohh c'mon people. This is interesting from a brain research perspective but it hardly provides any reason to worry about arresting people for their intentions.

    We already have a much more reliable and convenient way to judge people's criminal intent, namely their body language and facial expression. Evolution has nicely provided us a way of distinguishing between your loving significant other who is absently gesturing with the knife he was using to cook and your jilted lover who is coming after you with it. Shop owners pick out people who look like their about to steal all the time. We are just sane enough not to throw people in jail for 'looking suspicious.'

    Besides this machine is only set to measure what someone is currently preparing to do (as in seconds) trying to decode someone's long term plans is similar only in that both would require looking at the brain. This story shouldn't really raise anyone's estimate of the feasibility of reading someone's long term plans, or their eventual actions. It's nothing but an excuse for someone to spin a scare story.

    In any case if the goal is to jail future criminals decoding their future plans seems wholly besides the point. It would be more effective to try and predict how much impulse control someone has or their resistance to temptation than to figure out if they currently have a plan to commit a criminal act.


    As an aside I don't see what the doublethink in that comment was. It is true, if we did have a means to demonstrate a lack of intent to say blow up a plane then people who did so wouldn't need to be inconvenienced by all the crazy carry on restrictions. It might not be a compelling argument to use the technology but it isn't 'doublethink'.
  • Dear God (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Puff of Logic ( 895805 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @05:17AM (#17945856)
    I hope that we never reach a time where the majority of people accept the idea of "proving one's innocence." That innocence is presumed while guilt must be proven is at the very bedrock of any free society and god help us if that ever truly changes.
  • by bwd234 ( 806660 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @05:28AM (#17945902)
    "We are just sane enough not to throw people in jail for 'looking suspicious.'"

    Have you been living in a cave since Sept. 11, 2001?
  • by Speed Pour ( 1051122 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @05:29AM (#17945906)
    Seriously, once you ignore the helpful details of this technology (helping disabled people, or performing real scientific studies), you're only really left with a technology that's not far separated from a lie detector (and likely to have the same success rate and ease of cheating). The results of one of these things will not be admissible in court and it will be VERY easy to cheat it.

    I really look forward to seeing the results of this machine tested on clinically defined sociopaths, psychotics, and delusionals who will no doubt prove the machine incapable of accurate results on them. Once those with mental illness disprove it, most mental health spokesmen will be denouncing the technology because they believe almost all humans have varied degrees of these illnesses already.

    Briefly about MR: I think there's another large separation here. Actually, a couple. First, Minority Report was only about preventing murder and rape. All other crime was untouched (and even rising). Another distinction is that Minority Report assumes the lack of lawyers and a courtroom, which might be more justified considering their technique relies on psychics, which are theoretically (in cinema) more accurate.
  • Re:Guilty... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Patrik_AKA_RedX ( 624423 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @05:29AM (#17945912) Journal
    Thought suppressor devices are already in every living room. They're called TV.
  • by b.burl ( 1034274 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @05:35AM (#17945944)

    If only we could guarantee that our so-called elected servants are not without conscience, that would be revolutionary. It's not something that gets a lot of press time, but there are people who are defective, who don't feel compassion, who view others in the same way we view objects, who have no empathy. Oh to have a leader who feels that murdering children in the name of war is utterly nauseating, and won't bomb civilian sites (& fyi, there is no such thing as a smart bomb); a leader who doesn't view habeas corpus as an annoyance; a leader who will not say anything to anyone to get elected as long as the strategist says its a good idea; in short, a leader whose goal it is is to serve not win. A screening test that will eliminate the power hungry sub-humans, now that would be a godsend.

    The road to hell is paved not with good intentions, but with the intentions of the soulless remorseless creatures previous cultures called vampires and we call sociopaths/narcissists. Unfortunately, they're drawn to politics like ants to honey and most people don't see it.

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @05:51AM (#17946040) Homepage
    It doesn't. We just track their state of mind and have them commit acts of terrorism until we can reliably recognize that individual's brain pattern when intending to. A field test on suicide bombers is planned for early next year pending funding.
  • by ComaVN ( 325750 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @06:39AM (#17946224)
    Let me get this straight: specifically giving an exemption to acts for the protection of endangered species, so a minority can continue performing their religious rituals, qualifies as persecution these days?

    I want what you're smoking.
  • by maxwell demon ( 590494 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @07:29AM (#17946410) Journal

    One scary place this could be used was to check religious beliefs, in some countries you are prohibited to believe anything else than what the state dictates.

    Now, what would happen if it turned out that the religious leader actually doesn't believe it? :-)
  • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Friday February 09, 2007 @10:58AM (#17947922)
    Well they still have some way to go before they reach Minority Report levels.

    You're not kidding. From the article, this is what they've actually done:

    During the study, the researchers asked volunteers to decide whether to add or subtract two numbers they were later shown on a screen.

    Before the numbers flashed up, they were given a brain scan using a technique called functional magnetic imaging resonance. The researchers then used a software that had been designed to spot subtle differences in brain activity to predict the person's intentions with 70% accuracy.

    So perhaps the summary should read something like:

    "Scientists have found a way to sometimes distinguish which of two pre-selected choices a subject has made by evaluating their brain state using fMRI. The odds of the scientists getting it right in these highly restricted and controlled circumstances, where subjects are given a choice of two possible things to plan to do, are barely better than chance. Flipping a coin would give a prediction that is 50% accurate. Using millions of dollars of machinery and the most advanced algorithms a team of monkey... err... graduate students can come up with, the researchers have achieved 70% accuracy."

    For all of that, concerns about abuse of this tech are not misplaced. In a world where nonsense like polygraphs still have a modicum of public credibility something like this could easily be abused.

  • Proving Innocence? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rossz ( 67331 ) <> on Friday February 09, 2007 @01:20PM (#17950292) Homepage Journal
    Excuse the fuck out of me, but I don't have to prove my innocence. You have to prove my guilt.
  • by Peter Cooper ( 660482 ) * on Friday February 09, 2007 @01:45PM (#17950732) Homepage Journal
    I don't know about anyone else, but there are at least two discrete personalities in my mind. Only one of them is actually expressed as my true personality to the world, but I have a little voice (perhaps what some would call a conscience) that throws up all sorts of crazy ideas for my 'real' self to then choose to implement or not.

    So this little voice has told me to steer my car into oncoming traffic, maim people, and all manner of things, but because my 'real' self is pretty sane, it just ignores these stupid requests and does the 'right' thing in each situation. That doesn't mean the 'little voice' will stop coming up with ideas though. I just see this as part of being an introverted objectivist who doesn't see /thinking/ about anything whatsoever as taboo, just /doing/ certain things is taboo.

    If they can read our inner thoughts in future, I'd suggest we'd ALL be in jail, because I don't think I'm the only one who subconciously thinks about nasty things without ever entertaining the thought of /actually/ doing them.
  • > synapse firing

    Synapse firing is a simplified approximation of the passing of chemical signals from one cell to another. All cells throughout the body continually emit and absorb various signaling molecules (lymphokines, chemokines, cytokines, to name three classes). Taken as a whole this can be called the language of cells (a particular interest of mine []). There are many different chemicals involved in synapse firing, and not all (or even the same set) of them are used all the time. Think of brain synapses as a parallel bus. Different voltages can be sent along different patterns of different wires at any given time.

    In short, though, yes. The brain can be ed digitally. It is much more complex than most people initially think.

"I prefer the blunted cudgels of the followers of the Serpent God." -- Sean Doran the Younger