Futurist Wants to Replace the Death Penalty with Behavioral Modification Brain Implants

Monday, 27 July 2015 - 2:05PM
Weird Science
Neuroscience
Monday, 27 July 2015 - 2:05PM
Futurist Wants to Replace the Death Penalty with Behavioral Modification Brain Implants
The death penalty is an extremely controversial issue in the U.S., with many factors to consider. Many believe that it's both necessary and just to enact an "ultimate punishment" on violent criminals, while others denounce the cruelty of the act and/or cite false convictions and potentially barbarous methods as reasons to ban it. Now, futurist Zoltan Istvan suggests that in the next twenty years, we could replace the death penalty with behavioral modification implants - or a modern-day lobotomy.

Istvan is a futurist, transhumanist, philosopher, writer of transhumanist columns for Motherboard and Huffington Post, and author of The Transhumanist Wager, a philosophical science fiction novel. He also recently declared his candidacy for president in the 2016 election under the Transhumanist party, which he founded.

In an article for Motherboard, he advocated the implementation of devices that would suppress out-of-control anger and violent impulses. He claims that considering the state of neuroscientific technology, this could be possible in the next two decades or so; for example, the new wearable device from Thync has the ability to alter people's moods between calm and energetic. Istvan argues that it would be more humane to use implants that are more advanced in order to modify criminals' behavior to our liking, at least if the only alternative is killing them.

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Some people may complain that implants are too invasive and extreme. But similar outcomes-especially in altering criminal's minds to better fit society's goals-may be accomplished by genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or even super drugs. In fact, many criminals are already given powerful drugs, which make them quite different that they might be without them. After all, some people-including myself-believe much violent crime is a version of mental disease.

With so much scientific possibility on the near-term horizon of changing someone's criminal behavior and attitudes, the real debate society may end up having soon is not whether to execute people, but whether society should advocate for cerebral reconditioning of criminals-in other words, a lobotomy.
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There's a lot to unpack here, as there are many ethical (and legal) questions about brainwashing criminals. Some would argue that it's cruel and unusual punishment to lobotomize someone, even more so than killing them, and would violate their Eighth Amendment rights. Furthermore, it's extremely debatable whether violent crime can be considered a mental illness, or whether this is unnecessarily normative thinking. 

Beyond the ethical implications, it's unclear whether neuroscientific technology is advancing as quickly as he thinks. Amanda Pustilnik, a senior fellow for law and applied neuroscience at Harvard Law School, expressed doubts about whether such an advanced implant will exist in the next few decades:

"In two decades, maybe we'll have something better than we can imagine now-it's fun to speculate. And maybe if those devices work the way the article hypothesizes, the social norms about punishment will change and it won't be so retributive," Pustilnik told Popular Science. But based on current knowledge of the brain and the future of neuroscience, "we are so far away from anything that could control behavior."

Istvan also suggested a solution similar to the government control in the film (and upcoming TV series) Minority Report, which involves cryonics:

Opening quote
One other method that could be considered for death row criminals is cryonics. The movie Minority Report, which features precogs who can see crime activity in the future, show other ways violent criminals are dealt with: namely a form of suspended animation where criminals dream out their lives. So the concept isn't unheard of. With this in mind, maybe violent criminals even today should legally be given the option for cryonics, to be returned to a living state in the future where the reconditioning of the brain and new preventative technology-such as ubiquitous surveillance-means they could no longer commit violent acts.
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Istvan is correct that real-life cryonics may very well be an imminent reality; last year, a hospital began the first human trials for suspended animation, and people are already signing up to have their bodies and brains frozen after death, pending the speculative science coming to fruition. But it's a little disturbing that he contemplates ubiquitous government and/or corporate surveillance in such a blase manner (and will definitely affect whether I would vote for him for President):

Opening quote
In the future, it's going to be hard to do anything wrong anyway without being caught. Satellites, street cameras, drones, and the public with their smartphone cameras (and in 20 years time their bionic eyes) will capture everything. Simply put, physical crimes will be much harder to commit.
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