Hey there, all you starving college kids. Tired of selling plasma for beer money? Maybe the research department at Lauterbur State University can help. I’m Lisa Burton, and this is Lisa Burton Radio.
My special guest today is Dr. Franko Pavlov. He heads up the Neuroscience Department at Lauterbur State. “Welcome to the show, Dr. Pavlov.”
“Thank you, Ms. Burton. I am grateful for the invitation.”
“It sounds like you need some volunteers for your research, and you’re willing to pay them. What kind of things will the volunteers be getting into?”
“Our research is primarily concerned with the brain’s unconscious responses to external stimuli. We know that presenting the brain with a choice triggers a chemical response in the brain which leads to a decision. Our research attempts to characterize the nature of that initial response—how and where it occurs in the brain, how quickly, to what extent the human subject is aware of this response, and the degree to which this response can be used to predict future decisions. We conduct most of our work using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI for short. With fMRI, we can take a picture of a subject’s brain as it is presented with some external stimulus. The fMRI will indicate the areas of the brain that receive the most blood flow, which are the areas most affected by the stimulus and subsequent decision.
“Previous research has indicated that fMRI-detected brain responses can be used to predict an individual’s decision up to one week in advance with greater accuracy than even the individual herself could predict. For example, in a 2010 study, scientists at UCLA showed subjects a video promoting sunscreen use while those subjects underwent an fMRI brain scan. After the scan, the researchers asked the subjects to predict the likelihood they would use sunscreen over the course of the subsequent week. Compared with the subjects’ predictions, data from the fMRI scan was 23% more accurate in predicting sunscreen use.
“Unfortunately, previous research has concerned itself with simple and, shall we say, relatively innocuous choices. Pushing or not pushing a button. Using or not using sunscreen. For this reason, these past results were not unexpected. We know unconscious impulses play some role in the decision-making process. We know advertising can be effective, even when the targets of those advertisements believe it will not work. But predicting a significant decision involving real stakes a significant amount of time before that decision is made has not been accomplished prior to our work. Thanks to developments in fMRI technology from previous research and as a result of our unique experimental design, we have achieved levels of prediction success never before observed with human subjects. As of this moment, our fMRI-based algorithm is 91.8% accurate in predicting subjects’ decisions a week in advance. And this success has come when subjects are presented with a potentially life-changing decision which would seem to require complex analytical reasoning.”
“Interesting… so how much are you willing to pay these kids to serve as lab rats?”
“I cannot offer the exact figures. The compensation comes in the form of a monetary reward that is closely tied to the details of the experiment. For this reason, any specific information could compromise the integrity of our research. But I can say that the amount of money a subject earns depends on his decision at the end of the experiment and the success of our fMRI-based prediction algorithm in predicting that decision. Some subjects have received nothing. Some have received more than enough to finance a full university education.”
“Okay, but my experience is that big rewards come with some big risks. Are you entirely sure this is safe?”
“If you are asking about the risk of the procedure itself, yes. Subjects are merely asked to undergo an fMRI brain scan. This is a very common procedure in medicine and scientific research. Side effects like headaches, nausea, dizziness, chest pain and seizures are possible but occur very rarely across all MRI scans. And of course, all participants are informed of the MRI procedure beforehand, made aware of the possible side effects and given the opportunity to opt out. Everything we do is in line with the requirements of the Lauterbur State Research Ethics Committee. And participants are allowed to end the MRI scan at any time during the experiment.
“As for monetary risk, there is none involved for the subjects. No subject will lose money as a result of the experiment. They only have the chance to receive money in exchange for their participation.”
“MRI equipment is pretty expensive. You must have some sizable grants or backers to stay in business, and pay those kinds of fees. Who would be interested in financing this kind of research?”
“Yes, MRI equipment is expensive, but well within the budget of a research-oriented institution like Lauterbur State. And of course, we go through the usual grant application process for all of our research in order to secure funding. I believe most university professors who conduct research do the same. Our current grant was provided by Science Applications Corporation, a private science and technology conglomerate.”
“Wait a minute, my Google-fu says Science Applications Corporation is a government military contractor.”
“I believe some of their work is intended for military use. However, we do not intend our current research to serve a military purpose. It has been suggested that our prediction algorithm could be used to facilitate brainwashing technology or some other such idea out of science fiction. But brain responses to external stimuli are not so simple or well-understood that someone could create the desired brain response merely by introducing the right stimulus. For now, that kind of manipulation remains in the realm of science fiction.”
“Okay then. Let’s try it this way. Financiers usually have a reason for their interest in the research. What do your backers hope to do with this kind of application?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. As I stated, I am aware that Science Applications Corporation is a government defense contractor, but I do not know of any government or military influence on my laboratory’s current funding. In my opinion, it is not good research practice for scientists to know too much about any intended applications of their findings since this knowledge could be seen as a biasing factor.”
“I see. The reason I ask is that you recently testified on a pretty big trial. So your research must have some practical application. What can you tell me about that case and your testimony?”
“Yes, the Dr. David Solon case. A fellow professor—mathematics at Harvey Tech, I believe. I know the case has been in the newspapers. You probably know as much as I do. I was called to testify by the defense attorney representing Dr. Solon, who was accused of murder. I explained our research and the possibility of predicting human behavior a week in advance. Such predictions are possible because a decision may arise in the human brain without an individual being consciously aware of its existence until the moment the individual performs the relevant action. And given our research and that of other laboratories, the impetus for such an unconscious decision could occur up to a week in advance of the resultant action. I believe the defense was arguing that Dr. Solon had acted unconsciously when he shot the decedent, based on the fact that the decedent was said to have killed his wife a week earlier.”
“So let me see if I’ve got this straight. You try to predict if Big Man On Campus will ask out the nursing student or the cheerleader in two weeks. You use what you learn to help a murderer get a lighter sentence. It doesn’t make sense, the professor still killed someone.”
“I’m afraid I do not know this Big Man to whom you refer. As for Dr. Solon’s trial, the verdict is up to the jury, not to me. I am not in a position to offer an opinion on his guilt or innocence. I was not present in the courtroom. I do not know all the facts of the case. I can only reiterate what I said during my testimony: it is possible to present a subject with a scenario that causes a particular brain response unbeknownst to the subject, and for that response to generate a decision a week later that differs from the decision the subject expected he would make.
“I am aware that some people have taken this preliminary scientific finding to mean we should not hold criminals responsible for their crimes. If a particular stimulus can trigger an unconscious brain response that leads to a criminal action without the criminal having any conscious awareness of that brain response, then it would seem the criminal is not to blame. At least, that is how some people have argued. For my part, I try to avoid engaging in such philosophical speculation. I can only report the data I have observed in my research, nothing more.”
“I mean, if this research is so cutting edge, why don’t you just predict the outcome and the sentence and save the taxpayers all of that money. It all sounds a bit Minority Report to me.”
“So far, research in this area has only developed predictive power for decisions with predefined options. All current research, mine included, involves a controlled stimulus leading to a future decision. I believe there have been sociological and psychological studies on the relationship between socioeconomic background and crime or on links between genetics and psychopathy. But these are very different subjects than my current work. Predicting whether or not a particular individual will commit an unspecified action like a crime out of all the possible actions available to him at a future date is another matter entirely. Perhaps such predictive power is the wave of the future.”
“I invited you here to help advance science in some small way. Maybe we’ve done that, but there are some moral issues that should be considered too. Do you have any last thought for our listeners today?”
“There are always moral issues surrounding the application of any scientific research. Again, I will emphasize that all subjects in our research are completely voluntary. As for how our findings are interpreted and applied, that matter is out of my hands. We present our findings with the greatest degree of scientific accuracy possible.
“That being said, we are still looking for volunteers who wish to participate in our current study. There is no monetary risk and, aside from the rare and minor side effects of an fMRI scan, no physical risk. And there is the potential for great monetary reward to those willing to participate.”
“I’m actually at a loss here. Become part of this research at your own risk, but the money is decent. You can learn more about Franko and his research in the choose-your-own-adventure book, The Friar’s Lantern, by Greg Hickey. I’ll post all the info on the website after I go off the air.
“Speaking of funding, it really helps me out if you use those sharing buttons today. If Greg is successful, Lisa Burton Radio is successful too. Tweet your friends, Facebook your family. It’s fun, I promise.
“For Lisa Burton Radio, I’m Lisa Burton.”
You may win $1,000,000. You will judge a man of murder.
An eccentric scientist tells you he can read your mind and offers to prove it in a high-stakes wager. A respected college professor exacts impassioned, heat-of-the-moment revenge on his wife’s killer—a week after her death—and you’re on the jury. Take a Turing test with a twist, discover how your future choices might influence the past, and try your luck at Three Card Monte. And while you weigh chance, superstition, destiny, intuition and logic in making your decisions, ask yourself: are you responsible for your actions at all? Choose wisely—if you can.
Amazon purchase link: https://www.amazon.com/Friars-Lantern-Greg-Hickey/dp/1612969461/
Greg Hickey started writing his first novel the summer after he finished seventh grade. He didn’t get very far because he quickly realized he preferred playing outside with his friends.
Eight years later, he began to find a better balance between writing and life. He wrote the early drafts of his first screenplay Vita during his last two years of college. Vita went on to win an Honorable Mention award in the 2010 Los Angeles Movie Awards script competition and was named a finalist in the 2011 Sacramento International Film Festival.
After college, he spent a year in Sundsvall, Sweden and Cape Town, South Africa, playing and coaching for local baseball teams and penning his first novel, Our Dried Voices. That novel was published in 2014 and was a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Science Fiction Book of the Year Award.
Today, he still loves sharing stories while staying busy with the other facets of his life. He is a forensic scientist by day and endurance athlete and author by nights, lunches, weekends and any other spare moments. After his post-college travels, he once again lives in his hometown of Chicago with his wife, Lindsay.
Catch up with Greg at the following places: