When 24 year-old Aditi Sharma was tried for the murder of her former fiance, her brain was the chief witness for the prosecution. Sharma had submitted to the highly controversial Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test (BEOS), now employed by prosecutors in the Indian states of Maharashta and Gujarat. Going beyond lie detection, the BEOS test is supposedly able to identify whether an individual possesses memories related to a specific event. And Sharma's conviction represents the first time an Indian court has accepted the BEOS results as proof of guilt, although neuroscientists remain skeptical about the technology's reliability.
Prosecution offices in India have set up labs to examine suspects who submit to the test. When areas of the brain associated with memory, such as those dealing with smell and sound, light up during the description of a crime, prosecutors see that as evidence of the subject's commission of the crime:
Ms. Sharma, 24, agreed to take a BEOS test in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra. (Suspects may be tested only with their consent, but forensic investigators say many agree because they assume it will spare them an aggressive police interrogation.)
After placing 32 electrodes on Ms. Sharma's head, investigators said, they read aloud their version of events, speaking in the first person (“I bought arsenic”; “I met Udit at McDonald's”), along with neutral statements like “The sky is blue,” which help the software distinguish memories from normal cognition.
For an hour, Ms. Sharma said nothing. But the relevant nooks of her brain where memories are thought to be stored buzzed when the crime was recounted, according to Mr. Joseph, the state investigator. The judge endorsed Mr. Joseph's assertion that the scans were proof of “experiential knowledge” of having committed the murder, rather than just having heard about it.
Previously, Indian courts had accepted BEOS results only as corroborating evidence, not proof in itself of criminal activity. Citing the seriousness of the outcome (Sharma received a life sentence), many neuroscientists and bioethicists in the US have stated that the technology, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, has entered the legal system far too soon. But even if these supposed mind-reading technologies never meet the evidentiary standards of courts outside of India, other possible public and private uses exist:
No Lie MRI, a company in California, promises on its Web site to use the scans to help with developing interpersonal trust and military intelligence, among other tasks. In August, a committee of the National Research Council in Washington predicted that, with greater research, brain scans could eventually aid “the acquisition of intelligence from captured unlawful combatants” and “the screening of terrorism suspects at checkpoints.”