March 1, 2024


Lie detectors which scan the brain and not trembling hands and racing pulses are a new challenge for bioethics, and especially its newer sub-speciality, neuroethics. Two American companies have been launched to market the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in identifying deceit. The companies, No Lie MRI and Cephos, say that their goal is to exonerate the innocent and to replace the widely discredited polygraph machine. Their machines detect lies about 90% of the time, they claim.

Despite far more sophisticated technology and promising experimental work, there are reservations. Statisticians complain that interpretations of brain scans may be questionable or yield results which are statistically insignificant. Ethicists have even more gripes. Detecting laboratory lies, they point out, is quite different from real-life lies. A technical failure could send someone to death row.

The rapidly developing field of neuroscience willl eventually lead to technologies which can read minds to some extent. A brain scan might be able to finger a suspect because of the way he reacts to an image or to a word, for instance. "This is the first time that we have ever been able to get information directly from the brain," says bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, of the University of Pennsylvania. People find the idea extraordinarily frightening." Mind-reading used to be science fiction — but now its day may have arrived.
To discuss these dilemmas of neuroscience, a Neuroethics Society has just been founded in the US, with a stellar cast of American bioethicists, including Steven Hyman, of Harvard, Michael Gazzaniga, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Laurie Zoloth, of Northwestern University.