Geek Nation Proudly Acknowledges Indian Science

book jacket for a collection of reports on what scientists in India are doingBeing an American non-scientist, I can say if I represent many Americans we have no idea what scientists around the world are doing. I don’t remember how I came across Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, by Angela Saint (2011) but I loved the steampunkish cover so checked it out of the library to see what it covered.

As usual, I have let my books stack up and now I am behind and need to return some to the library and this is one of them. Unfortunately, the paper back book is printed on very cheap paper and is already yellow and faded and feels rough like molecules of paper are flaking off to touch. The print has dulled from black to a middle gray, and the type is 12 points or so but hard for me with my bad eyes to read.

This is the long way of saying, I didn’t read the whole thing. The random passage reading makes me wish my eyes could take it, but they can’t. It is fascinating to get a view into India’s science juxtaposed as she does with some of the millennia of Indian living, such as the Hindu attitude towards cows.

Their civilization is so ancient compared to the few hundred of America, and ours took some of the best but some of the worst from Europe as a jumping off point. (The Enlightenment = good, Puritanical notions = bad). But American science has been and remains on the super speed exponential growth continuum and we have gone from taking baths is bad for you (or maybe cold baths are “bracing” rather than miserable) to antibacterial soap everywhere and laws mandating hand washing.

Of course, with the current government, science is not being treated like something God gave us brains to figure out, but prefers the dogma of ancient times when some people thought the world was flat and about 5 days walk in any direction. (I exaggerate, maybe it was 5 days walk by camel or horse!)

Some things seem to be a universal need through all time: how to tell if someone is lying or telling the truth? Torture has long been the go to technique and remains popular with Republicans and religions. Police and judicial systems really need to know, but even “lie-detectors” can be beat.

Chapter 5, The Mindreading Machine, seems to have solved the problem in a fascinating way. But like so many advances, there are reasons to be skeptical (perhaps), but then fingerprints were once not accepted as indisputable proof of unique individuals.

There have been unscientific assessments of “criminality” before, such as phrenology referenced briefly on p. 146, basically claimed the bumps on human skulls had meaning as to personality characteristics. Then there was the group that decided to measure all the features of criminals and compile them into a method of determining criminals by the lengths of their noses or similar silliness (crainiometry  and anthropometry).

But lie detectors differed by seeking to measure the THOUGHTS of a person, in particular, nervousness and involuntary bodily responses when trying to lie. Many science fiction and fantasy stories have this dilemma of telling truth from lies, betrayal and trust, as a source of conflict in them.

Books about how to read body language turn out to be pretty accurate and body language is one reason why audio does not communicate as much FACTUAL information for our brains to process than the full use of all senses. We are not even necessarily conscious of why a person seems menacing or contemptuous or lying, but it is scientific fact that there are things that happen in the brain that cause visible manifestations of what we are thinking about.

Personally, I would like all elected politicians to have to be on lie detectors whenever they speak. Yes, I understand the benefit of white lies, and the necessity of lies by omission as a necessary evil in this world, but things have gotten so out of balance now that even presidents and senators and every stinking politician seems to lie without remorse or even acknowledging that what they are saying is, in fact, completely and utter nonsense and worse: deliberately false or opposite “alternative facts” from provable reality.

The author describes the high-profile murder case of Aditi Sharma, an Indian woman from a middle-class family “who was hooked up to a truth machine in a government forensic laboratory in Mumbai.”

The last thing I heard, she failed the test, and now it’s being used as evidence against her. (p. 147)

Knowing nothing about Indian law, I can only assume she was not permitted to refuse the test, and they may not have any conditions like our 5th Amendment that allows you not to incriminate yourself. In fact, I am not sure our 5th Amendment rights are all that solid, since, while you CAN refuse to take a breathalyzer test, that is statutorily an admission of guilt. This seems to me to violate the spirit of the 5th. Ditto urine testing which is a Republican favorite for welfare recipients and corporations just because they can.

The author cites how under policed India is and that is why the government spent resources to help police cope with the degree of crime.

I will not go into the entire list of social ills and systemic problems that lead to criminality in many cases. That requires a change of the human heart, not scientific inventions.

The author goes to “a slummy district of Mumbai called Kalina” where scientists at the Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratory are “experimenting with a truth machine.” (p. 148)

She met with Dr. Sunny Joseph to learn about the truth machine.

Although it’s routine for forensic teams in Western countries to collect fingerprints, DNA, sperm and blood samples from crime scenes, forensic science is fairly new to India. Back in 1897, the Kolkata police did set up the world’s first fingerprinting bureau — before even Scotland Yard in London — but for some unknown reason, this early foray into forensic science didn’t spread to the rest of the nation. When a terrorist bomb hit a market in New Delhi in 2008, for example, newspaper reported that officers rushed to clean the crime scene with buckets of water, which meant that, by the time investigators arrived to collect the forensic data they needed, there was none left. In fact, many Indian police teams don’t use forensics at all. (p. 149)

Dr. Joseph had studied the brain in people with obsessive compulsive disorder which seemed to be located in the brain “near the back of the skull, known as the anterior cingulate.”

And this taught Joseph the basic principle behind the truth machine used in this laboratory: that many aspects of human behavior, personality and action are localized in sections of the brain. Not quite in the order that phrenologists imagined centuries ago, but actually still quite specific. (p. 150)

Details of brain research are incorporated as well as the “hardware behind the Brain electrical Oscillations Signature test . . . a common, hundred-year-old piece of technology know as the electroencephalogram. ”

It comprises a skullcap and wires, and it detects tiny fluctuations in brain activity. It works because the brain sends tiny but measurable nerve signals to different parts of the body using small electrical impulses (each between a nanovolt and 100 microvolts, which is roughly the amount of power needs to light a hundred-thousandth of a light bulb). From the scalp, it’s possible to detect these tiny signals. The drawback is that the readings are fuzzy, making it difficult to pin down activity to an exact part of the brain. (p. 154)

“Different mental states produce their own frequencies.” Low states are drowsy states, high are alert. These can be recorded.

She mentions an American scientist, Lawrence Farwell, who pursued similar uses for the electroencephalogram. The concept involves showing  a suspect “some photographs of different crime scenes, and when he or she spotted one they recognized or which had some personal significance to them, their brain might produce the characteristic P300 bump on an electroencephalogram.” (p. 155)

He has failed so far, she says to get his method accepted as reliable evidence in the American courts.

In India, the story is different. The inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test — a psychologist from Bengalurur called Champadi Raman Mukundan — used research similar to Farewell’s when he was developing his software. Joseph tells me that Mukundan created a complicated set of algorithms, which process the data that comes out of an electroencephalogram (not just the P300 wav, but other factors too), and that he uses this to decide whether or not the suspect is telling the truth.” (p. 155)

The author also asked him ‘if suspects are scared of sitting in that bare white room, having their fate decided by a machine, however powerful it may be.”

He pauses, swivels away from his computer monitor and looks squarely into my eyes. “I’ll tel you. I’ll tell you. They are so, so much relieved to be here. They’re so much happy to be here with us, because we’re not scary. We talk to them nicely. Just imagine,” he says. “This is better than the police. You can imagine in India the way the police must be dealing with them.” (p. 154)

You can read the book if you want more details, but the gist of it is that the woman accused of murder had to have had the experience of doing so for her brain to respond with the measurable activity registered.

The author states that she is skeptical. Dr. Joseph assures here that experiences can’t be planted by the police. I to am skeptical. What about hypnosis where people respond to cues by doing absurd actions, like barking like a dog? Or the known euro plasticity of the brain to be able to visualize IN YOUR MIND’S EYE, repeatedly doing something so often, you train your body to respond faster to an oncoming tennis ball and improve your tennis game?

Under lengthy interrogation, where police might repeat false things over and over it might corrode reality, like our mainstream media today and the politicians who repeatedly lie to the point that some people believe them and refuse to believe any evidence and facts to the contrary. Gaslighting is a well-known psychology technique to make people doubt their own lived experiences.

And then of course, from my point of view, I have to say that widespread misogyny and sexism makes me question whether or not the algorithms developed were based on male brains for female brains because surely there would be differences just like women have different symptoms of heart attacks and are dismissed and denied they are actually sick because their brains may respond differently from standard (aka male) data.

I have been researching pain and the measurement of pain for some time now. It really bothers me that there is no objective measurement of pain. I have lightly investigated the possibility of frequency or electrical tracings as a method of identifying an exact source of pain (versus referred pain) and degree of pain (too relative). I wonder if this process could be used for that?

The lack of billions of dollars for funding in India compared to the US for such things as ERD pills really becomes apparent in some of her descriptions of the places research is done.

I also admire anyone who can master multiple languages, and the Indian people end up learning multiples plus English plus Latin for all the medical terms and more. I suspect that Indian scientists are better than Americans for remembering things and probably diverse thinking because of the nature and complexity of their history and contemporary lives. Average people (which I think may too often mean American people, can remember 7 digits on average (plus 2 some say).

When I look at Indian names and their written language, I think wow, I could never learn that. And example of the name of a town the author also visits is: Thiruvananthapuram. This word was too long for me to remember hardly any of it. I had to hold the book in one hand with a Post-it note demarcating the word and my thumb moving along as I added letters to this post with one finger-typing.

Clearly, if my brain were hooked up to the thinking machine, there would be a minimal number of brain sputters and sweating palms and all kinds of biological stress responses just trying to remember how to spell a city name. So I am not sure if we can directly correlate active electrical impulses in the brain with “remembering” a crime scene per se.

If the murder victim had died in the home that the murderer and victim lived in, surely that would demonstrate the “experience” of being in the house. Seeing a knife photo from a kitchen after that might lead the mind to jump and ASSUME, trying to build a story around it as all brains do to make sense of the world, that the knife was her own knife and she might be tricked into imagining that knife in her hand. The brain cannot distinguish between ACTUALLY HOLDING A KNIFE and IMAGINING holding a knife.

I question the assumptions of the science and the conclusions of the meaning of the data responses to accurately be interpreted as REAL versus imaginary. Similarly, a common story trope exists based on reality that some people feel guilt of death EVEN WHEN NOT BY THEIR OWN HAND, such as escaping from a burning building and not saving another person even if it was never possible. So the brain would surely visualize the guilt, the leaving of the other person, and possibly the screams and imagine the terror on the dying by fire victim’s face. EVEN IF THEY DID NOT EXPERIENCE that at all.

When science is going to make life and death decisions for people, we are in trouble if we do not substantially question the basis of all decisions at every step of the way. Perfect duplication of results done by another group of scientists, test subjects, and large scale cohorts must be rigorously tested.

While it would be nice to imagine a completely unbiased and objective measurement of validity of  people and their actions, I remain skeptical. Too much sexism, prejudice, and beliefs are hard coded without realizing it even in objective algorithms. Maybe the percentage of impulse would be less for a tiny woman or conversely, for a large man. Older or younger, Male or female. Educated or not. Untouchable caste or upper class.

But boy, I would like to see a device that could prove politicians the liars and  criminals we know too many are.