Balancing the Scales: AI & the Public Health Pandemic of Mass Shootings

Jun 2, 2022

Clear and Present Podcast: Episode 2

About This Episode

This episode of Clear and Present takes a look at the ethics of neuroscience, AI, public health, and gun violence. Dr. Giordano shares insights from his experiences as a clinician and scholar on this important current issue at the interface of the social sciences and technology.


James Giordano, PhD, MPhil., serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Biodefense Research; a neuroscientist and ethicist with over four decades experience in the field, his areas of expertise include the development, oversight, governance and control of biological, chemical, and cyber/informational weapons; scientific and technological approaches to human performance optimization; and international ethico-legal and social issues of biosecurity and biodefense.


Transcript

Dr. James Giordano:

Welcome to Clear and Present, a biweekly podcast of the Institute for Biodefense Research, where we bring subject matter experts to the fore to discuss their views and insights to current topics and issues at the interface of the biomedical sciences and technology, biosecurity, and biodefense.

Dr. James Giordano:

Hi, I’m Dr. James Giordano, executive director of the Institute for Biodefense Research. And what I’d like to do in this week’s podcast is something a bit different. Rather than interviewing a subject matter expert and discussing state-of-the-art invention, innovation, directions, and intents, I think it becomes important to look a little more closely to the current situation at home.

Dr. James Giordano:

I must tell you, without any exaggeration, every time there’s some senseless shooting or some other act of public violence, as we’ve seen recently, I’m contacted by various members of the media, law enforcement, and various politicians. They pose a really simple question to me as a neuroscientist. The question is, “Well, can’t we use the brain sciences, the neurocognitive sciences, to, ‘do something’ to prevent and mitigate this type of senseless violence?”

Dr. James Giordano:

As we’ve noted in some of the papers, and I provide in a link to this podcast the titles of some of those papers, and links in our past. Over the past 10 years, our research group has examined the viability and potential value of utilizing neurocognitive sciences in predictive ways, in descriptive ways, for public safety. We’ve also talked about the importance, if not necessity, for reclassifying violent behavior. And then have explored the interaction of the brain sciences both in the scope and tenor of the law here in the United States to determine if and how the brain sciences could be used in those ways that are supportive of definitions, probabilities, and predictions that might be viable and valuable for public safety and public health. And whether the law supports that. In other words, whether or not we can use the brain sciences in the scope and tenor of the law in those ways that are going to be protective.

Dr. James Giordano:

Realistically, as we noted, neuroscience and technologies in their existing forms could be used, and certainly neuroscience and technology could be developed in those ways that could enable description, prediction, probabilities of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns of individuals and groups of individuals that might be probabilistic for increased aggressiveness, violence in its expression in the public sphere. In other words, if we marry neuroscientific and neurocognitive assessments over a period of time throughout, perhaps, an individual’s lifespan as part of wellness checks, and if we change the frequency of those based upon certain aspects of the individual’s expressed behaviors and/or cognitions as evidenced in school, in social situations, and we couple that to big data and machine learning and various forms of AI, in real world scenarios, could we use the brain sciences in ways that are descriptive and predictive of increased aggressiveness that would be representative of expressions of violence?

Dr. James Giordano:

Yeah, we certainly could. But just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. Should we use the brain sciences in these ways in terms of their existing validity? Or is it, as we’ve called for, that the discussions between the law as an institution and law enforcement need to be more explicit to what the law requires of the brain sciences so as to meet the current basis of the code of federal evidence, for example, for admissibility of neuroscientific information to courtrooms? But also is that viable? Are those levels of assessment viable, given the healthcare system that we have in the United States at present? And are they of value?

Dr. James Giordano:

In other words, what will we do with that information? What will we do with those findings? How will we leverage those findings and those ways that are important to individual health, inclusive of mental and behavioral health so as to be able to reduce individual burden, risk, and harm, as well as those ways that are systemically beneficial for the public? And at the same time, appreciate systemic burden, risks, and potential harms, which then brings us squarely to the question: are civic institutions ready for the use of the brain sciences in these particular ways?

Dr. James Giordano:

As the COVID crisis has brought into stark relief, there are considerations of what might be considered a protective panopticon utilizing our science and technology to assess individuals on their biopsychosocial dimensions so as to reduce, mitigate, in some cases prevent, both individual and public risk. Could we use the brain sciences this way? Could we use the brain sciences in those ways that are descriptive, indicative, and, perhaps, predictive of those patterns of individual’s neurocognitive activities that would be representative their escalation towards aggressiveness and public violence?

Dr. James Giordano:

Is that really providing protection in that level of neuroscientific and neurocognitive panopticon, or is that profiling? And not just in the professional and appropriate sense of the word to create viable biopsychosocial profiles that might be used indicatively to be able to mitigate or prevent violence, but perhaps in its pejorative connotation as well. And then we have to ask to what end. What will we use this information and its capabilities for? This begins to hearken the idea of Minority Report scenarios that, while fictional, I think have some elements, some kernel, of possibility in what may be actualized to be truth.

Dr. James Giordano:

One of the things we’ve suggested, that this might be important in those ways that define what are those contributory variables that can be assessed so as to afford early intervention? Continuous intervention, particularly in those circumstances where there are mental health issues that are precipitated with the escalation of aggressiveness and violence. It might also be useful for early surveillance towards interdiction, to interrupt individual’s intent for harm. In other words, once certain variables or thresholds have been crossed, well, at that point, there’s intervention, counseling intervention, social intervention, perhaps legal intervention. But then we have to recognize that this is going to require at least some revision of existing protocols, policies, and laws, perhaps even a new ethical framework in terms of how the neuroscience and neurotechnology, being developed in specific ways, to be used within this social framework.

Dr. James Giordano:

Over 10 years ago, the attorney Stephanie Costa proposed something, which was called the Neurological Information Non-discrimination Act, Nina, something we supported and continued to advocate to this day. And not only in terms of non-discrimination with regard to neurocognitive biopsychosocial information with regard to the workplace and occupationally, but perhaps more broadly. If we’re going to get this information, how do we ensure it’s security? It’s providence? It’s custodianship? And how do we ensure that we utilize these information points, these data, in ways that are technically right and morally good? What good? What definition of good? What about existing policies and laws? Are they sufficient? I think there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that existing gun laws require some revisitation and some revision on a variety of levels. Realistically, appreciating the probity of the second amendment is important, but we can’t do that anachronistically. And we have to recognize an important consideration of the second amendment when it was established, based upon compact clause 32 article 109, is to preserve militia, state militia, that can be mobilized against extra-national threats that seek dominion.

Dr. James Giordano:

Well, is this still an important consideration? It doesn’t necessarily dictate that each and all should bear arms, but that they have the right to bear arms within state militia if, in fact, there are threats to the constitution, foreign and domestic. 22 states have active militia forces, and of those, a little more than half have active weapons training, formal weapons training, some towards competitive events, others use simulated weapons training. But each and all towards the idea of weapons training vis-a-via militia, assembling individuals who are participatory and constituents so as to be able to be called, if you will, to colors, if and when the time demands. But of those 22 states, each and all also have provisions for armories, weapons lockers. It doesn’t necessarily give explicit permission, or provide explication and therefore dictate, that individuals as individuals can personally bear weapons within their domicile. I’m not bringing that into question. What I’m simply saying is the scope and tenor of that law has literally, what’s known as, a gray zone.

Dr. James Giordano:

The other issue that I think is important to bear in mind is that when the second amendment was established, the sophistication and capability of arms, of weapons at that time, was significantly different than which we have today. And as such, it’s important for law and policy to remain flexible so as to remain the fixity of its purpose. Fixity of its purpose, to be able to sustain a militia against enemies of the constitution, foreign and domestic. Well, that may be a call to individual colors to be able to perfect one’s domicile, one’s kin, one’s kith. And certainly I get that. But it also demands that individuals who are taking on that responsibility through the use of personal weapons, be well-trained in those weapons. And not only well-trained, but acquire those weapons appropriately.

Dr. James Giordano:

And this speaks to other issues, not whether or not an individual should own weapons of that sort. And certainly I think there are discussions that are equivocal on both sides. But the issue here is are we doing enough to make sure that the existing laws and provisions for individuals to acquire weapons are soundly based upon what represents biological, psychological, and social probity to bear that responsibility. And at the same time, to protect other individuals for a fundamental right of their lives and their health, which then hearkens us back to the use of neuroscience and neurotechnology and assessments and maintenance of individual and social mental health. Are we in fact prepared to be able to utilize the brain sciences in those ways that can help us to be more descriptive, if not predictive, of what may be escalating aggression and violence in those ways that would pose public health, risks, and threats?

Dr. James Giordano:

I don’t know the answers to those questions. But in considering the idea of biodefense against all enemies, foreign and domestic, the question then becomes, are we doing enough domestically to be able to assure public health and safety, given the scientific tools and resources at our current disposal? Inclusive of, perhaps, the way that science and technology can be utilized in those ways that are going to be more beneficial to individual and public health, inclusive of mental health. And then what builds upon that to be able to utilize those tools appropriately to provide care for those individual, with mental illness? Perhaps inclusive of how we regard and classify recurrent aggressive and violent behavior. Not to simply pathologize it or medicalize it, but to make sure that individuals are receiving the care they need as tantamount to one of the premier constructs of medicine, to first do good and to prevent harm, harm to self, harm to others.

Dr. James Giordano:

So while we may consider the use of neurocognitive sciences in ways that “proverbially deliver us from evil”, I think it’s important that we equally consider if and how civic institutions on a variety of levels can assure that the capability of the science and technology and the oversight, as well as, perhaps, relative ignorance of various capabilities, not only the science and technology, but of those who use it, are such that in our attempts to utilize these things to deliver us from evil, equally, should not lead us into temptation to misuse the science and technology and its capabilities, or the lack thereof, in those ways that can be usurped to incur burden, risk, and harm.

Dr. James Giordano:

I think in balancing the equation in terms of the apparent risks, threats, and harms caused by ongoing violence and the toolkit that the brain sciences offer for biosecurity and biodefense, we must be equally cautious in the way we consider, the way we construct, the way we use, and the way we develop the brain sciences, as well as the information that the brain sciences provide with the way we regard and treat each other.

Dr. James Giordano:

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