The tricky business of unblocking your brain

Don’t read this if you’ve got an aneurysm.

Spend 24 hours in the company of a couple of hundred brain surgeons and you’d have a sense of unease too. I’m at a conference where “minimally invasive neurological therapies” are being discussed. My take-home message? No one knows anything for sure. Until it’s too late, that is.

Not that they aren’t good at their job – they’re the best in the world at getting at blockages and other problems inside your brain. But they are here to discuss the things they don’t know. And those are conversations you’d rather not overhear.

The typical presentation goes like this. “So, we went to perform an angioplasty on patient A, who was suffering from acutely reduced vision” (I may be paraphrasing badly). “Here’s the imaging.”

On the screen appears a picture of some loopy, tangled-looking blood vessels. There are murmurs and sharp intakes of breath. A voice just behind me mutters “ay-ay-ay”.

I have no idea what I’m looking at. I’m only here to give a talk about more general issues in scientific research. But I have that sinking feeling, like in the first five minutes of an episode of Casualty, that something bad is about to happen.

“I’d like to know: what would you have done?” the presenter asks. She offers two options. The room votes. The split is even, an observation that makes me hugely uncomfortable. There is no consensus. Why is there no consensus? Surely there’s a right thing to do in any situation? The presenter goes on to explain what she did. There is another round of murmuring in the room. Clearly, many people – approximately half – think this was a very bad idea.

The next presenter describes a surgery that started to go wrong 4 hours into an operation. He talks like it’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. “What do you think?” he asks the audience. “Shall I go on or stop now?” A voice from the back shouts, “No, no, no. Stop. You have to stop!”

He did go on, as it happened. He describes how the procedure progressed, blow by blow. “No, no, don’t do that!” comes an anguished shout, like this is Surgery Live. It’s not: this all happened last year. “Yeah,” the presenter mutters. “Thanks, I know that now.”

The next presentation ends with, “Well, I’ll never do that again.” Then comes another: “So, I’d like your opinions – should I treat this? If so, how?” The audience is calling out answers like a classroom full of show-offs. The session chair asks for calm.

Not all the answers are helpful. “If you get bleeding there, that’s going to be catastrophic.” The presenter furrows his brow. “I know,” he says. “That’s why I’m asking.”

This one is not a done deal, as it turns out. “Thanks,” the presenter says as the deluge of conflicting answers abates. “I’m due to see her again in ten days, so that’s really helpful.”

Here’s hoping she’s not reading this.

 

A patient prepped for surgery. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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How virtual reality pigs could change the justice system forever

Lawyers in Canda are aiming to defend their client by asking the judge to don a virtual reality headset and experience the life of a pig.

“These are not humans, you dumb frickin' broad.”

Those were the words truck driver Jeffrey Veldjesgraaf said to animal rights activist Anita Krajnc on 22 June 2015 as she gave water to some of the 190 pigs in his slaughterhouse-bound truck. This week, 49-year-old Kranjc appeared at the Ontario Court of Justice charged with mischief for the deed, which she argues was an act of compassion for the overheated animals. To prove this, her lawyers hope to show a virtual reality video of a slaughterhouse to the judge, David Harris. Pigs might not be humans, but humans are about to become pigs.

“The tack that we’ve taken recognises that Anita hasn’t done anything wrong,” said one of her lawyers, James Silver. Along with testimony from environmental and animal welfare experts, her defence hope the virtual reality experience, which is planned for when the trial resumes in October, will allow Harris to understand Kranjc’s point of view. Via the pigs’ point of view.

It’s safe to say that the simulated experience of being a pig in a slaughterhouse will not be a pleasant one. iAnimal, an immersive VR video about the lives of farm animals, launched earlier this year and has already changed attitudes towards meat. But whether or not Harris becomes a vegetarian after the trial is not the most pressing aspect of this case. If the lawyers get their wish to bring a VR headset into the courtroom, they will make legal history.

“Virtual reality is a logical progression from the existing ways in which technology is used to illustrate and present evidence in court,” says Graham Smith, a technology lawyer and partner at the international law firm Bird & Bird.

“Graphics, charts, visualisations, simulations and reconstructions, data-augmented video and other technology tools are already used to assist courts in understanding complex data and sequences of events.”

Researchers have already been looking into the ways VR can be used in courts, with particular focus on recreating crime scenes. In May, Staffordshire University launched a project that aims to “transport” jurors into virtual crime scenes, whilst in 2014 researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland created a 3D reconstruction of a shooting, including the trajectory of a bullet. Although this will help bring to life complex evidence that might be hard to understand or picture in context, the use of VR in this way is not without its flaws.

“Whether a particular aid should be admitted into evidence can give rise to argument, especially in criminal trials involving a jury,” says Smith. “Does the reconstruction incorporate factual assumptions or inferences that are in dispute, perhaps based on expert evidence? Does the reconstruction fairly represent the underlying materials? Is the data at all coloured by the particular way in which it is presented? 

“Would immersion aid a jury's understanding of the events or could it have a prejudicial impact? At its core, would VR in a particular case add to or detract from the court's ability objectively to assess the evidence?”

The potential for bias is worrying, especially if the VR video was constructed from witness testimony, not CCTV footage or other quantitative data. To avoid bias, feasibly both the defence and prosecution could recreate an event from different perspectives. If the jury or judge experience the life of a distressed pig on its way to be slaughtered, should they also be immersed in the life of a sweaty trucker, just trying to do his job and panicked by a protester feeding his pigs an unknown substance from a bottle?

“These are not new debates,” says Smith. “Lawyers are used to tackling these kinds of issues with the current generation of illustrative aids. Before too long they will find themselves doing so with immersive VR.”

It seems safe to trust, then, that legal professionals will readily come up with failsafe guidelines for the use of VR in order to avoid prejudice or bias. But beyond legal concerns, there is another issue: ethics.

In 2009, researchers at the University of Leicester discovered that jurors face trauma due to their exposure to harrowing evidence. “The research confirms that jury service, particularly for crimes against people, can cause significant anxiety, and for a vulnerable minority it can lead to severe clinical levels of stress or the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder,” they wrote.

It’s easy to see how this trauma could be exacerbated by being virtually transported to a scene and watching a crime play out before your eyes. Gamers have already spoken about panic attacks as a result of VR horror games, with Denny Unger, creative director of Cloudhead Games, speculating they could cause heart attacks. A virtual reality murder, however virtual, is still real, and could easily cause similar distress.

Then there is the matter of which crimes get the VR treatment. Would courts allow the jury to be immersed in a VR rape? Despite how harrowing and farfetched that sounds, a virtual reality sexual assault was already screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

For now, legal professionals have time to consider these issues. By October, Kranjc’s lawyers may or may not have been allowed to use VR in court. If they are, they may change legal history. If they’re not, Kranjc may be found guilty, and faces six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.