BWW Interviews - Alan Alda Talks New PBS Series BRAINS ON TRIAL
Multi-Emmy Award winner, and Oscar, Tony and Grammy nominee Alan Alda will host the innovative two-part PBS series BRAINS ON TRIAL. The project explores how the growing ability of brain scanning techiques to separate truth from lies, even decode people's thoughts and memories, may radically affect the American criminal justice system in the near future.
The multi-talented actor spoke exclusively to BWW about the unique series, his love of science and the possibilty of a M*A*S*H reunion.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Mr. Alda. I find the premise of your upcoming PBS special to be fascinating.
Yes, I do too.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned as you researched and interviewed scientists and legal experts for the project?
I think the most surprising thing was that under the right conditions, you can be thinking of a picture in your head, while the scanning machine and the computer will be able to print out a rough version of what you're thinking. It's kind of shocking. And it's not just that they are reading your mind - it's much more complicated than that. They have to first look at your brain while you are looking at thousands and thousands of images so that they can see certain design elements as well as which parts of the brain are being activated. Then, when you study a picture and you put those design elements together, you get a rough approximation of the picture you are looking at.
Wow, real science fiction stuff. And how are defense attorneys and legal experts responding to the idea of using all this new technology in the courtroom?
I think from what I've heard, defense attorneys are more likely to bring it into the courtroom than anybody else. It seems that right now, with what's available, they try to bring it in to determine whether you are lying by virtue of seeing what the brain is registering when you are asked questions. It's very different than polygraphs which, as far as I know, are no longer allowed in court. But scientists and judges alike are very wary of using MRI machines to determine honesty or truthfulness because it's only a predictor, and there are ways to defeat it. So your chances of getting accurate information are very slim - it's not to the level of being useful in the court right now.
Do you feel that laws and rules will have to be rewritten before this technology can become compatible with our current legal system?
Well the interesting thing is, things that are now known about the brain have already entered the system. The idea that the brain is not fully formed until you are almost 30 years old has already been introduced and the Supreme Court already has based two rulings on it. They have cited brain research to back up their decisions on sentencing juveniles. So it has already entered in that way. But to actuallly bring it into the court is a process. Being able to tell if someone has been in a place before or has seen a face before is tricky right now because it's not reliable enough, but they can do amazing things. So it's a good thing that people in the justice system and scientists are getting together to inform one another about what is useful in the court.
The series maintains that this new technology may ultimately be used in the jury selection process.
Yes, I suppose it could be used for that, but its interesting that they scanned the brains of both judges and juries and found that their brains are very active in making decisions about sentencing. So there's also the question of implicit bias, for both juries and judges. I don't think it's clear yet how any of those studies will be used in court. Maybe you're right, maybe it can be used for selecting a jury, but I don't think we are going to see a day any time soon when you'll be able to scan a juror's brain before you okay them for the panel. If that ever happens, it will be far in the future.
It's evident from your past TV projects and even some of the wonderful plays you've written in which Albert Einstein and Marie Curie served as subjects, that you have a great passion for science.
I always loved science. Most recently when I hosted Scientific American Frontiers I got to talk to scientists all day long and it was very educational - and I really loved it. And I got very interested in helping scientists communicate better in their work. So that's why I started the Center for Commmunicating Science at [New York's] Stoney Brook University.