Pre-emptive Crime and Punishment

University of Pennsylvania ethicist Arthur Caplan goes to the movies for R & E in search of the ethics of human engineering. Read his thoughts on Steven Spielberg’s MINORITY REPORT:

If you are interested in the ethical problems raised by advances in science, then you are likely to find Stephen Spielberg’s new movie, MINORITY REPORT, a bit disappointing.

It is not a bad movie. It has plenty of action with Tom Cruise in the role of a mid-21st century federal cop. He spends most of the movie on the run from a hi-tech police force that comes complete with retinal scanning technology, intelligent robots and, most interestingly, forecasts of who will commit a crime, and where and when.

If you are enamored of Hollywood and special effects fueled by high-speed chases, you will leave the cineplex happy. But if you want a more philosophical, nuanced examination of the ethical choices your grandchildren are likely to have to grapple with as technology advances, then you are going to leave hungry for more than MINORITY REPORT delivers.

The film, based on a story by Philip K. Dick, presents a dark and even haunting image of where science may take us. The future, or at least the future of murder, can be seen by genetically engineered telepaths. They are linked to a police agency whose job it is to stop the killing before it happens. The residents of big cities spend their days in highly controlled environments in which identification scans using retinal imaging are ubiquitous. Big business has linked to this technology, personalizing its advertising for each individual. High-tech drugs provide an illicit escape for those who find order boring and can afford the prices. Virtual reality can provide you with a very good time at very little personal risk.

So far, so good. The explanations, however, of how the technology works that lets us see into the future, are lacking. The explanation of the powers of the telepaths is ludicrously incoherent. Their link to the police uses a technology so Rube Goldberg-like as to be downright silly. The scanning technology can, with some serious bioengineering, be too easily defeated. The possibilities inherent in brain imaging and virtual reality are underexplained and underutilized in favor of magnetically powered police cars and cops flying around powered by rocket packs.

The core ethical message of MINORITY REPORT is that technology will crush individualism in favor of social goods such as safety, security, and happiness. Scientists in the movie are constantly seduced and entranced by technologies that cause them to make immoral choices, as when the pre-crime cops and their technical helpers keep the telepaths imprisoned and dehumanized in the name of the public good and personal glory.

All of this leaves plenty of room for ethical rumination. But the amount of time spent in the man/robo hunt for Tom leaves little room for ethics. Would it really mean the end of individualism if human beings gave up a great deal of their privacy? Is it true that we find violent crime so horrific that we would give up all of our civil liberties to stop it? That is hardly the case today in the U.S.A., where guns, drugs, and due process for those accused of a crime are all flourishing. Would it really be ethically wrong to lose ourselves in drug experiences that do not addict the user or in virtual reality worlds that would allow us to make our fantasies come true? Wouldn’t our ancestors from a century back say that is what we do today with Prozac, television, CDs, and Dolby Sound?

And who is really the enemy when it comes to using technology to destroy freedom — the government and its police, as the movie contends, or is it more likely to be corporations, or even religious movements? In many contemporary societies, fundamentalist practitioners of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or Christianity are as likely to want to put technology to use to scan and identify non-believers or those who have engaged in “sin” as are governments. Culture and convention exert tremendous influence to get us to conform, even without the power of the state behind them.

All of these issues are worth thinking hard about. Rapid progress in the neurosciences, radiology, cognitive science, and bioengineering means that the ability to investigate our brains and intervene electrochemically to modify them is not far away. We will need to know whether consent is always a requirement for a brain scan. Policies should be put in place to determine what information about our propensities and habits that can be learned by looking inside our heads can be kept private and what should be available to third parties.

And the brain sciences will have to decide if they are simply in the business of diagnosing and treating mental illness and disorder, or whether they will follow the lead of cosmetic surgeons and sports physiologists in making improvement and enhancement a key part of what they do.

MINORITY REPORT, while not providing much insight into these questions, is still a timely reminder that it is not too soon to begin looking ahead.

Arthur Caplan is the Emmanuel and Robert Hart Professor and Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.