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Predict the Future by Getting Into People's Minds

Can we get into a person's mind and predict the future based on their intentions? That's what a new government program hopes to do. Specifically they want to determine criminal intent in order to stop crimes and acts of terror before they happen.

From a recent article in Discover Magazine;

This past summer, at an undisclosed location in a northeastern metropolis, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was trying to predict the future. There were no psychics or crystal balls, just a battery of sensors designed to determine human intention through the subtlest of changes in heart rate, gaze, and other physiological markers.

They call it Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST, and $20 million will be spent to develop it. If it works as promised, screeners at airports will be able to determine hostile intent in travelers, presumably making it possible to identify a terrorist before he or she strikes. Naturally, there are concerns about "false positives." It is likely that innocent people will be wrongly identified as potential criminals.

The Department of Homeland Security already has about 3,000 officers who watch for suspicious behavior and monitor facial expressions. They use a system called, "Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques" (SPOT). The new FAST system is meant to supplement this, not replace it. It would identify passengers who might need additional screening or observation by human operators.

But can this new system really predict the future behavior of criminals and terrorists? According to the article in Discover;

DHS’s faith in the technology is based on the controversial theory of malintent, developed in 2007 by clinical psychologist and FAST research consultant Daniel Martin. By combining ideas from neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology, and counterterrorism, Martin concluded that the physiological signs of a future hostile actor would increase with the severity of the impending act and as the moment of the crime approaches. If so, a terrorist who plans to blow up a plane in an hour should be easier to detect than a man who plans to cheat on his wife during a business trip. Martin also concluded that the physiological signs, such as heart rate and skin temperature, would be too minute to manipulate, eliminating the possibility that terrorists would outsmart the system. “The system analyzes responses that people have little or no control over,” he claims. “And even if someone can avoid detection on one sensor, it is unlikely he can avoid detection on all.”

So far, DHS has tested FAST on more than 2,000 subjects; the results have been better than chance but not overwhelming. The system correctly determined whether a person was going to commit a malevolent act 78 percent of the time. FAST officials have released some of their findings to peer review and have repeatedly stated their intention to release more, but without complete data in the public forum, some scientists have questioned the feasibility of the program.

Predict the future by getting into people's minds through physiological signs? It seems that there is something to the idea, but this is also the basis for the standard polygraph machine, and most scientists consider polygraph testing to be unreliable at best.


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