Friday, February 16, 2007
Imaging the pre-criminal mind
Remember that Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," where the cops were able to see into the future and then bust people for crimes that they were going to commit, before they committed them? That was science fiction, but what if I told you we're not so far away from a world where reading people's intentions becomes a regular thing?
A team of researchers, led by John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, has figured out a way to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to decode what people are intending to do in the future. They train their computers to learn what your fMRI brain patterns look like when you have certain thoughts, and then use that knowledge to figure out what you're about to do.
For now, they're only able to read intentions with about 70 percent accuracy. And you can't just grab someone off the street and figure out his or her intentions immediately. First the fMRI machine has to be calibrated to each person, and it's a huge machine so you have to actually bring the person to the machine. At most you can read very binary or "yes-no"-type answers for one thing at a time, and you have to pre-determine what the possible outcomes are going to be. For example, the researchers asked test subjects to decide ahead of time whether they were going to either add or subtract two numbers, and then the scientists trained their computers to recognize what the brain looked like for each of the two results.
Despite the limitations, Dr. Haynes says we're about 20 or 30 years away from having "Minority Report"-type technology, which to me doesn’t sound like much longer. In the next couple of years, as the next generation of more sensitive fMRI machines are developed, we're probably going to see these systems used commonly as more accurate lie detectors, for neuromarketing (detecting consumers' attitudes about products), and for prospective employee screening.
Ethicists are up in arms over all this. We're ushering in an era of using personal medical data in a whole new way, and some of it can feel... scary. Other research has been done using fMRI brain scanning to detect whether someone is having moral or amoral thoughts, or whether his or her brain looks like one of a criminal psychopath or a non-criminal. Scientists have also recognized what the brain looks like when it is able to control feelings of arousal, so there is now talk of using that information to decide whether a sex offender in prison has been fully rehabilitated or not.
Soon it may be possible to read people's future intentions even before they are conscious of them. Do you think we should welcome this brain-reading technology, or are we opening up Pandora's box here?
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