Saturday, February 10, 2007

Stool Intentions

You think you have the right/wrong, good/bad thing sorted. It’s not brain surgery after all, is it? Well not exactly but, according to The Guardian today, it could be closer than we imagine,

‘A team of world-leading neuroscientists has developed a powerful technique that allows them to look deep inside a person's brain and read their intentions before they act.

The research breaks controversial new ground in scientists' ability to probe people's minds and eavesdrop on their thoughts, and raises serious ethical issues over how brain-reading technology may be used in the future.’

Yes, they are working on a system to determine if we are planning to do a bad thing. This should be right up the Police Pre-Crime Unit’s street, since they love nothing better than to solve crimes that haven’t happened yet – so much easier than having to be careful with real evidence and relying on the testimony of fallible individuals. So much nicer to be sitting indoors sifting through emails than out in the cold and wet crawling along the ground with tweezers.

Last week we saw three paedophiles who met in a chat room convicted of conspiracy to rape two school girls in what is being described as a ‘landmark case’ because the evidence was solely computer-based. These men are vile and should be in jail for possessing depraved images of children and it is certainly right that police stepped in because the intended victims were real people and a terrible crime could have taken place. But it didn’t and the conviction stretches the definition of ‘conspiracy’ further than it has ever been outside of wartime because these men had never met. Why not trust the law and be satisfied with convicting them of the crimes they did commit, which are serious enough to keep them on the sex offenders register for life?

Last week nine men were arrested in Birmingham under the Terrorism Act. Last night one was released without charge claiming that Britain is a ‘police state for Muslims’. Today five of the remaining eight were charged with ‘terror offences’ and one is accused of plotting to kidnap and kill a Muslim British soldier by beheading him. Yes, it’s a horrific thought, and if police have truly foiled a terror plot then I’ll be first in line to applaud their efforts because they’ll be keeping us safe, which is their main job. In London we know what it’s like to lose 52 innocent people and have hundreds more disabled because four idiots decided to blow themselves up. We’ve faced the horror of having it nearly happen all over again two weeks later when four more stepped up to martyr themselves.

And yes, it’s all led to hand-wringing about why people want to do terrible things to each other but isn’t there a difference between wanting to do them and actually doing them? Wouldn’t Dan Brown and Martina Cole be in chains if thinking up ghoulish ways to kill people was evidence in itself of wrongdoing?

The definition of ‘conspiracy’ needs to be very closely monitored by we ordinary folk lest we end up jack-booting ourselves into an own goal in the liberty cup. Let us never forget that the powers that be are very focused on technology that makes their job easier.

Professor John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, who led this study on intention mapping with colleagues at University College London and Oxford University explained to The Guardian,

‘These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate about the implications, so that one day we're not surprised and overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do. These things are going to come to us in the next few years and we should really be prepared.’

You know what Prof, isn’t it kind of down to you to do the follow up on this? Do you need me to remind you of what happened in the end of Minority Report, or for that matter, what happened to Robert Oppenheimer?

Cartoon from


lavenderblue said...

The thought that we will be 'recorded' as we walk through streets is quite terrifying.
Suppose, that a couple or more have the same idea - writing a play....have seen a the book..........and suddenly they are taped.
Conspiracy - we really cannot allow this to happen.
In the light of the internet rapists, would it have happened ?
Was it 'fantasy' of the worst imaginable order ,or a real need.
It frightens me.
I have a part time job on a sex line.I get used to very strange people.At one point I called 'Crossroads ' for advice.
The answer was- people who talk and fantasise are quite likely to do the act, given the opportunity.
I do not know the answer.
I only know that I object to losing privacy, but should that right be denied to all of us in the light of this latest case?

That's so pants said...

Hi Lavenderblue. We don't know do we? If ever there was a can of worms it's this. You have the experience of working on a sex chat line so why do you think that punters pay to call you to fantasise about acts instead of carrying them out with partners for free? Who's ever proved that fantasising is a first step towards criminality? Should PD James be locked up now?

Not Saussure said...

Wouldn't Dan Brown and Martina Cole be in chains if thinking up ghoulish ways to kill people was evidence in itself of wrongdoing?

It's not, though. A conspiracy has several elements, about all of which the jury must be sure before they can convict. One of them is the intention that the crime be carried out. The jury may have been mistaken, but by their verdict they found that the plan to murder the two girls was something more than a ghoulish fantasy -- take a look at the specimen direction on conspiracy (which is what the jury will have been told the law is) and see what you think.

I don't know what defence the men ran, but I'd imagine that they tried to argue precisely that it was nothing more than a grotesque fantasy that none of them intended should be anything more than that. The fact that one of them -- the chap who tried to argue that he was acting as a spy for a vigilante group until he got cold feet -- felt sufficiently worried about the way things were developing that he went to the police probably wouldn't have helped that defence, but I'm sure the jury were invited to consider it.

That's so pants said...

Hi Not Saussure, I do get it that we as a society should, as much as we can, prevent predatory behaviour, and I wasn't arguing that the paedophiles shouldn't have been put away. I was just pointing out that this is a landmark case (in law = precedent) and trying to illustrate that we, as citizens, should be very aware of how decisions we might sanction because of the irksome nature of them, might later impact on our own freedoms. This is why I used these examples to illustrate the story about scientists being able to map criminal intentions and what fears fears I might have for that scenario. For whatever reason, a great many of us either write or consume grizzly fictional tales in books or on film without doing any harm to others. My question is - if we are already blurring the boundary of innocence and guilt by stretching the definition of conspiracy, where might it end?

R H said...

Fantasy is wishful thinking. Important in psychiatry. I know a bloke who fantasised about killing his mother, and eventually did -although we laughed about it at the time, never believing he would.

Science will end the world, soon enough.

Not Saussure said...

Sorry,Noosa, but I don't see how the law on conspiracy has been extended by this case; the prosecution still had to prove the same points they'd have had to prove if the conspiracy had been hatched by post or over the telephone.

It may well be that this is the first time a conspiracy conviction has been obtained in such circumstances -- all contact, including the initial one, by internet -- but all that means is that it's the first time such a set of circumstances has been put before a jury. It doesn't broaden the definition of the offence or alter the points the prosecution has to prove.

I agree that, if the research you describe were to be extended in the ways the authors suggest and you fear (and that would mean extending it quite some distance, as as I can see) it would be very worrying, just as it would be if lie detector evidence were allowed in court, since that would alter the nature of the trial process completely. At present, the prosecution has to present evidence on which a jury decides whether the defendant intended to do something (and if they think he was, or may have been, just fantasising about it, they have to acquit). This 'Minority Report' scenario would take that decision away from them, in effect, and give it to an expert witness.

That's certainly scary, but I don't think it really bears on the instant case, where the jury was asked to consider evidence about what the accused actually did and said -- as it happens, all by email and chatroom, though it could just as well have been by phone, letter and face-to-face meetings -- and deduce from it whether they intended to carry out their fantasies (convict) or whether they were, or may have been, intended to be acted only in the imagination (acquit).

That's so pants said...

Hi RH - That is awful but could your knowing about it have prevented it do you think?

Hi Not Saussure - I am talking pants as usual - sorry! I am paranoid you know.

R H said...

His plans were bizarre. But in the end he just bludgeoned and stabbed her to death, then wandered up the street for a bit of lunch.

At his trial he was found unfit to plead, but it still bought him eight years in the Thomas Embling, plus supervision for life.

He's in his own flat now: inherited from mother, along with $150,000 cash -administered by the State Trustees.

Could we have prevented it? No, because Mental Health services in this country are a disgrace, they lock people up then release them while they're still sick. That's what happened to him. He actually absconded, and instead of dragging him back to hospital when they found him, they placed him in a government flat, where he was soon climbing up the walls. Two weeks later he killed his mother.

Meanwhile all the big mental hospitals here are closing down anyway, being sold off for housing, the mentally ill are supposed to live with their families, which some don't have anyway, and get 'out-patient' care. What a joke. At the same time, with rampant gentrification all around the inner suburbs now there's no cheap digs left for them anyway. What actually happens is a lot of them roam the streets as strange loveable eccentrics. How cute.

Really. What a dirty society this is. Total shit.

R H said...

I have enormous trouble opening your comments, and have got a spy virus thing anyway, but which seems to romp about on your blog more than any other, continually deleting my fabulous comments.


That's so pants said...

Hi RH - awful story. There is the same lack of support for people with serious mental health conditions. Although I don't know that I would want to be in a facility here as wards tend to be mixed and rape is rampant. With mental illness on the increase it's not really on is it?

Re comments - I don't know the answer I'm afraid. I don't have any google ads or anything - you tend to get a lot of activity with those as they search for a credit card number. The only thing I can think of is that I've got comment moderator on and this is because I was plagued for a while with those bulk comment things that try to get you to become a mystery shopper. I've noticed when I have left comments on other blogs with comment moderator on that you have to be careful not to delete your own comment by exiting the page before you get the message that the comment has been saved. If it does happen you can often retrieve the comment with the reverse arrow.

R H said...

I don't know what you mean by mixed ward, but male and female dormitories are often in the same building here, but at opposite ends. Male and female patients do mix and socialise in TV and games lounges, and out in the grounds of course, and I'd expect any sexual attack to happen there, not in the wards, which are always staffed. I worked at Mont Park psychiatric Hospital for two years and there was never any instance of rape, or even sexual harrassment, but there were quite a few romances.

I'm just astonished that you would actually get rapes there. It's unheard of here.

That's so pants said...

Britain has a shockingly low standard of social care compared to most developed countries (except the USA). There are psychiatric wards where men and women sleep in the same room just as there are clinical wards where this is the case. Extremely vulnerable women are often put at risk, I expect, to make life easier for staff - women tend to be a moderating influence on male behaviour.

R H said...

Women being a moderating influence on male behaviour is something I was going to mention. At Mont Park, female staff didn't normally enter male dorms, and vice versa, then an experiment was tried out to see what the sight of female staff in male dorms would do, and what it did was shame some of those dirty old toe-picking buggers into being a lot neater.

It doesn't matter where you're from, there's always some woman in the past who's frightened the life out of you for being a grub.