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July 26, 2015

Could brain implants "make the death penalty obsolete"?

The technocorrections question in the title of this post is drawn from this intriguing Motherboard article authored by futurist Zoltan Istvan, headlined "How Brain Implants (and Other Technology) Could Make the Death Penalty Obsolete."  For those who believe (as I do) that technology could well become the most important (and mist disruptive) force in how we look at crime and punishment, this full piece is a must-read (and I am very grateful to the reader who sent this my way).  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is one of America’s most contentious issues.  Critics complain that capital punishment is inhumane, pointing out how some executions have failed to quickly kill criminals (and instead tortured them).  Supporters of the death penalty fire back saying capital punishment deters violent crime in society and serves justice to wronged victims....

Regardless of the debate — which shows no signs of easing as we head into the 2016 elections — I think technology will change the entire conversation in the next 10 to 20 years, rendering many of the most potent issues obsolete.

For example, it’s likely we will have cranial implants in two decades time that will be able to send signals to our brains that manipulate our behaviors.  Those implants will be able to control out-of-control tempers and violent actions — and maybe even unsavory thoughts.  This type of tech raises the obvious question: Instead of killing someone who has committed a terrible crime, should we instead alter their brain and the way it functions to make them a better person?

Recently, the commercially available Thync device made headlines for being able to alter our moods.  Additionally, nearly a half million people already have implants in their heads, most to overcome deafness, but some to help with Alzheimer’s or epilepsy.  So the technology to change behavior and alter the brain isn’t science fiction.  The science, in some ways, is already here — and certainly poised to grow, especially with Obama’s $3 billion dollar BRAIN initiative, of which $70 million went to DARPA, partially for cranial implant research.

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.  Because I want to believe in the good of human beings, and I also think all human existence has some value, I’m on the lookout for ways to preserve life and maximize its usefulness in society.... 

Speaking of extreme surveillance — that rapidly growing field of technology also presents near-term alternatives for criminals on death row that might be considered sufficient punishment.  We could permanently track and monitor death row criminals. And we could have an ankle brace (or implant) that releases a powerful tranquilizer if violent behavior is reported or attempted.

Surveillance and tracking of criminals would be expensive to monitor, but perhaps in five to 10 years time basic computer recognition programs in charge of drones might be able to do the surveillance affordably.  In fact, it might be cheapest just to have a robot follow a violent criminal around all the time, another technology that also should be here in less than a decade’s time.  Violent criminals could, for example, only travel in driverless cars approved and monitored by local police, and they’d always be accompanied by some drone or robot caretaker.

Regardless, 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.  And if people knew they were going to be caught, crime would drop noticeably.  In fact, I surmise in the future, violent criminals will be caught far more frequently than now, especially if we have some type of trauma alert implant in people — a device that alerts authorities when someone’s brain is signaling great trouble or trauma (such as a victim of a mugging).

Inevitably, the future of crime will change because of technology.  Therefore, we should also consider changing our views on the death penalty.  The rehabilitation of criminals via coming radical technology, as well as my optimism for finding the good in people, has swayed me to gently come out publicly against the death penalty.

Whatever happens, we shouldn’t continue to spend billions of dollars of tax payer money to keep so many criminals in jail.  The US prison system costs four times the entire public education system in America.  To me, this financial fact is one of the greatest ongoing tragedies of American economics and society.  We should use science and technology to rehabilitate and make criminals contribute positively to American life — then they may not be criminals anymore, but citizens adding to a brighter future for all of us.

July 26, 2015 at 08:17 AM | Permalink


I suspect this guy is being wildly optimistic. Mostly because the level of understanding that would be needed in order to control the brain and not just read what it is doing would require a massive amount of research that would b extremely dubious to perform from an ethical standpoint. I will be surprised if we are even able to read what the brain is doing with that level of specificity in the indicated time frame.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 26, 2015 9:37:57 AM

Technology has always been the answer. Instead of enhancing development the legal system has sought to crush it. Regulation crushing all innovation. Tort litigation. Under-funding by the lawyers running government.

I have many times proposed taking half the $trillion from the lawyers and making the entire economy a high tech industry with the standard 20% investment in research and development and innovation. That would be 10 times the current commitment. Just kill the lawyer hierarchy, and take half its money. Hand it over to education and science.

Hideous example. Traffic laws. Worthless. Technology explains all reductions in crashes.

Worse. 10% of healthcare is wasted on defensive medicine. This is defined as a medical order with the purpose of setting up a legal defense in potential future litigation, of no clinical benefit to the patient. This is a type of fraud that enriches the medical profession. They would reply they would gladly end it if frivolous malpractice claims could be suppressed. Even in defendant judicial hellholes, the juries finds for the doctor in the overwhelming majority of trials. I do not support loser pays. I like the American Rule. However, judges should start punishing serial frivolous lawsuit filers with sanctions from their personal assets. They never will because judges and defense lawyers owe their jobs not to the client or the public, but to the plaintiff lawyer.

I will address the article in another comment detailing current state of behavioral and medication treatments.

Posted by: Supremcy Claus | Jul 26, 2015 10:09:28 AM

Instead of an lengthy review of available tools, I am picking the best today.

1) Differentiate between emotional and predatory aggression. You may grasp the very different aspects of each by thinking of a cat stalking a mouse and by thinking of a cat cornered by a pit bull dog. You should be able to tell the physiological state, the mental state, the motivations, and the purposes. The differences between these types of aggression have biological studies numbering slightly lower than the number supporting the Theory of Evolution, thousands, if not tens of thousands, from the molecular levels to the ecological level.

2) Most of us will be capable of both under different circumstances. But pick the prisoners with a lot of trouble with emotional aggression, those with a really bad temper that cannot be turned off in a second when given what they want.

3) Then put them on Abilify depot shots once a month. A shot is necessary to assure the medication has been given, rather than testing blood levels after taking pills. Although it has limited approval for other indications by the vile lawyer run FDA, the FDA must just be ignored. It should be attacked and defunded by relentless litigation and attacks on its budget in Congress. A million people have been placed on Abilify for aggression for a good reason. It has a 70% success rate with very few side effects. It is likely to make people more interested in being social with others. The cost is around $18,000/year today, because of the idiotic lawyer written patent laws. So the cost approaches that of jail, but once generic, the cost should drop to a sixth of its current price, or even less if the lawyer hierarchy is gotten rid of and no longer impedes the production of safe products.

The DOJ will never fund this other approach. Find a pre-natal genetic test for anti-social personality disorder, and abort the fetuses who are positive, in the first trimester, of course. That is the time when the fetus is a part of the woman's body, and she is subject to Fourth Amendment protection. After 20 weeks, the fetus may be viable and is subject to Fifth Amendment due process protection against being killed without a hearing.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 26, 2015 5:49:42 PM

I am all for rehabilitative therapy, but tech? I am not sold on this as I can see it's miss-use by the government. Tech might be the answer someday, but we will have to replace those currently in power and have a standard that must be not only agreed upon, but the legislature must ad hear to it and never deviate.

Watch what you think might be good for the masses....it might come back to bite the masses in the end.

Posted by: Book38 | Jul 26, 2015 9:28:32 PM

Headed in the wrong direction, people arent meant to be modified or change the chip and see what happens.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jul 26, 2015 11:24:01 PM

Midwest. You drive? A car is a tool. It kills 30000 people in the most horrifying ways. If you walk, shoes are tools. Roads are tools. So if you plan to go to Pittsburgh, you need to walk bare footed through bear country.

Until you stop using horrifying tools yourself, you cannot criticize brain tools.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 27, 2015 1:43:18 AM

I do tend to agree with Book38 that it would be far scarier to give government the power to order this sort of modification than to simply allow the execution of even a large number of offenders (while recognizing that we currently execute only a token handful). Mostly because I see it having a greater tendency to slide as to what criteria have to be met in order for its use to be approved.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 27, 2015 3:41:09 AM

The brave new world stuff sounds problematic but overall not sure why this specifically is a "death penalty" issue esp. since so few of those potentially a target of this sort of thing will be sentenced to die (to punish them for their crimes, not really for deterrent reasons often times).

Posted by: Joe | Jul 27, 2015 10:20:40 AM


I believe it is a matter of using condemned inmates as a starting point. Sort of: "Hey, we're supposed to kill these guys but there's a vocal segment of society that doesn't like that idea so how about we do this instead?"

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 27, 2015 10:59:32 AM

The Supreme Court (again with these know nothing assholes) has ruled that prisoners may not receive involuntary treatment. They have also ruled that their bodies may not be invaded to retrieved swallowed contraband. One assumes the same applies to the head as to the intestines.

One may get an involuntary commitment if the prisoner has both committed a physically dangerous act and has an established mental illness. Proving he has a severe mental illness to a level of clear and convincing level of proof in a commitment hearing precludes the death penalty. The state may restore a psychotic inmate to non-psychotic, and then carry out the death penalty (naturally, when he is no longer dangerous; are lawyers stupid or what?). As to lesser derangements such as a very bad temper (now called, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD)), impulsivity, anti-social personality disorder (no morals, no empathy), headed soccer ball at age 10, whatever, there is no Supreme Court clear decision.

On balance, the treatment would be voluntary. And if involuntary, the death penalty would be precluded under the current regime.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 27, 2015 11:52:09 AM


I do think that raises an interesting question. Imagine that technology progresses to where someone could be made into a living zombie, basically a human body without a brain of its own yet still capable of locomotion and performing tasks under the control of another.

Now, execution is a permissible outcome for at least some segment of offenders (we can argue later over how large that segment should be), is there some fundamental reason that a court should be able to order that execution but not the zombification procedure I posit above? (Assume that the legislature is willing to pass laws that at least purport to give a court that authority).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 27, 2015 1:12:56 PM

Technology is always the answer. Lawyers are crushing it.

If a technology can make someone as safe as the death penalty, with its 100% safety guarantee, I would support it.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 27, 2015 1:24:33 PM

"Imagine that technology progresses to where someone could be made into a living zombie, basically a human body without a brain of its own yet still capable of locomotion and performing tasks under the control of another."

Sounds a lot like many prosecutors and stewards of a "conservative" blog. Who needs new technology!

Posted by: albeed | Jul 28, 2015 6:58:27 AM

"Regardless of the debate — which shows no signs of easing as we head into the 2016 elections — I think technology will change the entire conversation in the next 10 to 20 years, rendering many of the most potent issues obsolete."

Doesn't merely sound like "well they are going to die anyway, let's try it on them first.

A core reason why people think a selective few murderers should be executed is retribution. Now, a few have other ideas, including executing for property crime. But, that is the prime reason we have the death penalty. Not sure about "obsolete."

Posted by: Joe | Jul 28, 2015 9:52:45 AM

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