It was a courtroom first. Late last year, an Illinois judge allowed functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) as evidence during the sentencing phase of a murder trial. Defense attorneys argued that the scan showed signs of mental illness and hoped it would convince the jury to show mercy. It didn’t. They sentenced Brian Dugan to death for killing a 10-year-old girl. Despite the inability to sway a jury, many lawyers say the case is a watershed moment: It opens the door for all kinds of fMRI analysis, including the work of two companies that say they can read brain activity to detect deceit. In essence, fMRI could someday become an unbeatable lie detector. The reality, though, is a little more complicated.
The two companies marketing fMRI lie detectors, No Lie MRI in California and Cephos in Massachusetts, have reported accuracy rates from 75 to 98 percent. That’s not good enough, says Joy Hirsch, director of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University: “Someone’s life could be in the hands of this technology.”
Joel Huizenga, the founder and CEO of No Lie MRI, agrees and notes that, with acceptance of fMRI evidence growing, his company is participating in more studies than ever to improve recognition of deceit patterns. “Are we as good as we can be? No, of course not,” he says. His counterpart at Cephos, Steven Laken, says that no matter the error rate, jurors have to be told that fMRI results are not infallible and should be interpreted only for supporting a judgment, not as definitive evidence of guilt.
“Might” is still the operative word. Despite the decision in Illinois, judges typically scrutinize the merit of new scientific methods before admitting them in an actual trial. “I believe there will be more attempts to have this testimony introduced in court,” says Michael Perlin, a law professor at New York Law School who studies how courts use fMRI results. But if attorneys can’t prove it’s reliable and relevant, they’ll probably fail.
The real test will come when prosecutors try to use fMRI to bolster their cases. Experts tend to agree that, for now, the technology delivers mixed results. Using a picture of someone’s brain to justify a prison sentence—or worse—may be too much to ask.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.