The Future of Prisons is Making Centuries Pass in a Day

Tuesday, 19 August 2014 - 1:41PM
Tuesday, 19 August 2014 - 1:41PM

In the Star Trek episode "Hard Time," Miles O'Brien is forced to experience twenty years worth of memories, specifically of a traumatic prison sentence, within a few hours. In a case of life imitating art, philosopher Rebecca Roache of Oxford University is now theorizing that in the near future, prisoners will be subjected to a method of punishment that dilates time, so that a person's subjective experience can span decades or even centuries in a matter of hours or days. 


In a post on her blog, Practical Ethics, Roache proposes that this time dilation could be achieved in one of two ways. First, the prisoners' minds could be uploaded into a supercomputer. With sufficient power, she hypothesizes that one could run the uploaded mind many times faster than it would in real life, causing the mind to experience time at a much faster rate. She quotes fellow Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who calls this type of artificial intelligence technology "speed superintelligence," and claims that if a speed superintelligence were operating at ten thousand times the speed of a human brain, it "would be able to read a book in a few seconds and write a PhD thesis in an afternoon. If the speed‑up were instead a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours." By that logic, a prisoner's uploaded brain that ran at a million times the speed of a biological brain would subjectively experience one thousand years of his or her prison sentence in eight and a half hours.


She also addresses the ways in which the technology could be used for rehabilitation, as well as punishment: "The eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation. Between sunrise and sunset, then, the vilest criminals could serve a millennium of hard labour and return fully rehabilitated either to the real world (if technology facilitates transferring them back to a biological substrate) or, perhaps, to exile in a computer simulated world."


The second method by which time could be subjectively dilated would be through mind-altering drugs. Our perception of time is extremely impressionable, affected by a myriad of factors from age to emotions to others' facial expressions. Physiologically speaking, recent research has shown that our perception of time is linked to concentrations of a neurotransmitter called GABA; the lower the levels of GABA, the more slowly time passes. According to Roache, "This research on subjective experience of duration could inform the design and management of prisons, with the worst criminals being sent to special institutions designed to ensure their sentences pass as slowly and monotonously as possible."


This article has drawn a great deal of criticism, with many media outlets claiming that Roache is advocating "futuristic torture," particularly since she related these potential punishment methods to the real-life case of Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old boy who was abused over a long period of time and then murdered by his mother and stepfather, who then only received the UK maximum of 30 years in prison. In a clarifying blog post, Roache claims that she does not necessarily endorse any of these methods, but rather that this post was primarily intended to be a thought experiment. However, as a philosopher, she believes that society as a whole should question the definition of "inhumane," as there is not a clear demarcation between "reasonable" and "inhumane" punishment, particularly when attempting to craft a punishment to fit heinous crimes. This also brings up the larger question of whether the entire concept of punishment entails suffering, or whether simple deprivation can be considered a distinct concept. 


In a later interview, she was criticized for only considering the degree of suffering that a prisoner should suffer, while many believe that the punitive system is broken and should be focused solely on rehabilitation. In response, she claimed that she believed rehabilitation to be of the utmost importance, but she didn't focus on it because it was less philosophically interesting. She also explored whether these methods could actually constitute a more humane punishment in certain cases, such as the incarceration of very young offenders. Using her proposed methods, a teenager who commits a horrific crime could serve out a punitive sentence without spending his or her entire life (or even a significant portion of it) behind bars. That being said, she also asserted that, in her personal estimation, desert is crucial to an ethical response to crime, and therefore our legal system cannot be focused solely on rehabilitation. She claimed that the logical extension of taking desert out of the equation would be to incarcerate people who have not yet committed any crimes, but are shown to have a genetic predisposition. She asserted that this solution, which is the other side of the philosophical coin when it comes to focusing solely on rehabilitation, would be more dystopian than any of the punishments she's suggested.

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