Monday, November 12, 2007

Remembering 1984

George Orwell's novel tells the story of Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party living in the ruins of London, a chief city in the totalitarian super-state of Oceania. Winston keeps a journal of his negative thoughts and opinions about this totalitarian regime. If found, these thoughts would result in his torture and death by the Thought Police. The Thought Police have monitors in every Party household and public area, as well as hidden microphones and informers to catch potential thought-criminals who could endanger the security of the controlling Inner Party.

With this backdrop, here we learned that Law School Professor Hank Greely was part of a nationwide group of researchers centered at UC-Santa Barbara who recently received a $10 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to study the ways in which neuroscience can be applied to the justice system:
“Advances in neuroscience and our understanding of how the brain functions have both immediate and long term implications for the legal system,” Law School Dean Larry Kramer told The Daily in an email. “As advances in neuroscience teach us to understand this better, we cannot help but change the way law deals with a wide variety of problems.”

Neuroscience has a number of applications to the law, mainly involving lie detection and personal responsibility for criminal behavior, which could raise serious ethical questions for judges and juries in the future.

San Diego-based startup No Lie MRI has developed a lie detector that employs MRI technology to detect lies with 90 percent accuracy. The possibility of foolproof lie detection could have far-reaching effects on the justice system, but experts are careful not to get carried away before the new technology has established itself as legitimate. Current constitutional protections were not written in anticipation of advances in neuroscience and would not offer much defense against the aggressive use of neuroscience in trials.

Greely argued that the First Amendment does not currently guarantee freedom of thought, and that the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination only applies to testimony. MRI tests may be put under the same non-testimonial category as breathalyser tests, he said. If neurological advances occur in the near future, Greely warned that the Bill of Rights may not be expanded to address neuroscience.
Maybe Orwell's fiction was not as far from the truth as he might have imagined?

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