Tracing The Future of Forensic Medicine
Realistic genetic photo fits, portable diagnostic labs and microbiomes are all new elements in the tool-kit of medical professionals in forensic medicine to catch criminals and solve complex cases. Reality is not at all CSI, but not because of the lack of high-tech, but due to the distortions of television. Let’s see how the future of forensic medicine might look in actuality.
CSI and its effect
Ultraviolet cameras showing bruises healed a while ago. Luminol displaying traces of blood on leather jackets. UV lights like lightsabers scouring over empty rooms to find saliva, semen or any fluid to do a DNA exam in a high-tech crime lab. The Hollywood series CSI enchanted millions of viewers with the hocus-pocus of digital technology into believing that forensic science and forensic medicine is the ultimate tool-kit for finding criminals in a fast and efficient way. The sequel and many following similar ones mixed already available and widely used forensic know-how with technological wishful thinking so skillfully that it even led to the noted CSI effect among jurors.
In 2005, The Wall Street Journal wrote that gullible juries, fooled by television into believing their local crime labs are more shrewd and definitive than they actually are, are handing down “not guilty” verdicts unless prosecutors come up with fancy forensic evidence, such as results from DNA tests. However, collecting and analyzing samples are way more difficult and lengthier than in the super-duper CSI lab, and there are many cases where DNA evidence is even pointless.
From fingerprints to pre-crime policing?
Nevertheless, the interest in the sequel, as well as the CSI effect, shows that there is a demand for high-tech solutions in criminal justice as they promise to represent potential new reliable tools to provide grounded, hard evidence in complicated cases. And although we are way too far from creating plaster molds of the interior of wounds to determine the type of knife wounding the victim as presented in the first season of CSI, technology and latest scientific discoveries arrived at the forensic pathologist’s office and with every passing year, we get closer to something similar to the fancy CSI lab.
But forensic medicine does not only deal with murdered corps and criminal justice cases. The branch’s actual task is to apply medical knowledge to establish facts in both civil and criminal legal matters. That means collecting and analyzing evidence ranging from genetics to toxicology to identify perpetrators and prosecute them. Here, we enlisted the latest high-tech solutions helping the work of professionals in forensic medicine while peeking into the far away future. Will we ever have a society where pre-crime policing hinders the actual violations of the law just as we’ve seen in Minority Report? Certain signs say we might. Will we be able to recreate the last scene in the dead victim’s eye to see the murderer? Although many believed in it at the turn of the 19th century, it is highly unlikely. But let’s dive into the details.
Genetics give away perpetrators
The techniques that make it possible to identify a suspect using a unique genetic blueprint have only been around since 1985. That’s when Alec Jeffreys and his colleagues in England first demonstrated the use of DNA in a criminal investigation. Since then, DNA testing seems to become the holy grail of forensic medicine – as the CSI effect shows. However, in spite of the illusion, collecting DNA samples is meticulous work, sometimes impossible or redundant, and results are not back in hours, but rather in weeks.
However, when the circumstances allow, a DNA test could help in tracing the bad guys. Standard testing involves isolating the DNA and then screening the genetic code for pieces of DNA called “short tandem repeats”. These chunks don’t necessarily code for useful proteins, but are known to differ between individuals – so they can be used to tell people apart, or provide evidence for familial relations. When a suspect’s DNA test is performed, it is searched against the available DNA databases. According to Interpol, 54 countries invested in DNA databases already in 2009. The number has astonishingly grown since then, so has the scope of what those databases collect. As databases are getting bigger and bigger, familial DNA matches will increasingly bring criminals to justice.
For example, Christopher Hampton was jailed for life in the UK in 2016 after admitting that he had raped a 17-year-old girl and stabbed her to death in 1984. Samples taken from the crime scene were found to match DNA taken from Hampton’s daughter after she was arrested during a domestic dispute.
Drawing photofits from DNA
In the future, investigators might go even further and reconstruct physical features from genetic data. That’s the essence of DNA phenotyping. In 2010, forensic biology researchers Manfred Kayser and Susan Walsh developed the IrisPlex system, which uses six DNA markers to determine whether someone has blue or brown eyes. In 2012, additional ones were included to predict hair color. Last year the group added skin color. These tests have been made available via a website, and anyone who has access to their genetic data can try it out. Currently, DNA phenotyping can nearly accurately predict the sex of the given person, red or black hair color, brown and blue eyes, adult height, and up to 70 percent accuracy, it can also make predictions for skin color, age, dimples or freckles. How scary is that on a scale from one to ten?
There are already some companies that offer DNA phenotyping services, for example, Parabon NanoLabs, which claims to be able to accurately predict the physical appearance of an unknown person from DNA. But what if you manage to create the right profile? How do you assign a name to it? You need a public database with biometric information, and there are countries already working on that. Australia built a system called The Capability, a facial recognition software matching faces from CCTV footage to passports. At first, it was used only as a counterterrorism tool, but the government started to expand its functions. Do you also see some privacy concerns and ethical issues here? Should we pose the hypothetical question where the boundaries of private life are when solving a crime is at stake?
Microbiomes give clues to Sherlocks
While the human organism itself is said to contain about 37 trillion human cells, the microbiome – and the bulk of bacteria making it up – means an additional 30-50 trillion cells. Moreover, according to a study, humans emit 37 million bacteria every hour – that’s the number of microorganisms we add to every room. That means that we leave our traces as microbiomes in everything we touch, we sit on or where we walk.
And researchers have even shown that each individual’s microbiome is unique – just as a fingerprint or DNA. Since these communities are specific to each individual, they identify whether a particular suspect committed an assault. That’s why experts believe that the bacteria residing on pubic hair may be individualized enough to identify perpetrators in sexual assault cases in the future for which conventional DNA evidence isn’t available.
Another area of research is analyzing the fingermarks that humans leave behind – which could perhaps tell more clues to the detective than fingerprints. So far, researchers have succeeded in identifying metabolites from foods and compounds such as green vegetables and caffeine in fingermarks. “Maybe one day we’ll be able to tell if [the person who left a fingermark] was a meat eater or a vegetarian,” says Annemieke van Dam, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Center in the Netherlands.
Virtual autopsies and forensic holodeck
Family members and friends immensely suffer when a loved one gets murdered, but an autopsy, which is often required by crime investigators, could even worsen the situation – as they cannot have the intact body back for mourning rituals.
In the future, technology might help. Dr. Thali, professor, and chair of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland co-founded The Virtopsy Project in 1999. Since then virtual autopsies have become standard procedure for forensic investigations in Switzerland, and an emerging process around the globe. The method creates permanent 3-D models that can be easily accessed and the data quickly relayed via computer to aid in getting a second opinion.
The technology also allows for visualization of injuries in 3-D – and even for the reconstruction of whole crime scenes. The VR headset, Oculus Rift can transport the entire grand jury to the crime scene and play out what happened exactly. Lars Ebert and his colleagues at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland, are building such a “forensic holodeck” that will be available in courts in the not-so-distant future.
Portable diagnostic labs for crime scenes
Parallel to the trend in healthcare to make patients the point of care, for example through the application of portable diagnostic devices, in forensic medicine, there is a trend to bring the laboratory to the crime scene.
“Handheld electronic sniffers” may replace canine units dedicated to the detection of drugs, and “flashlight detectors” may replace breathalyzers and field sobriety tests for alcohol-impaired driving. Near-infrared light scanners image human veins, which can also help police to identify a potential suspect during an investigation. In the future, the toolbox will definitely be expanded with even smaller and more functional devices. Maybe a crime scene tricorder, too.
Smart algorithms catching criminals
Facial recognition algorithms are nothing new: Facebook uses it when suggesting whom to tag in photos (although under the GDPR, you can opt-out of the system). However, it’s easier to use facial recognition for pictures where the individual doesn’t want to hide: no sunglasses, caps, beards, no significant changes in hair color or features. Of course, suspects and criminals might do that exactly – so facial recognition algorithms should shape up!
Animetrics may have the answer to these problems. The company has developed a software that converts 2-D images into “simulated 3-D models of a person’s face” in about a second, and the software’s users can alter a suspect’s attitude or position. All facial recognition algorithms can analyze the resulting “headshot image”. On a sophisticated laptop, the headshot can be matched against as many as one million faces.
Another smart algorithm can not only remember faces but also tell when they are lying. A machine learning algorithm trained on the faces of defendants in recordings of real trials, correctly identified truth-tellers about 75 percent of the time. Humans managed just 59.5 percent, while the best interrogators can reach 65 percent. It’s obvious we need help with lie detection – very few have the skills of Tim Roth as Dr. Cal Lightman in the series Lie To Me – thus, The Medical Futurist predicts increasing precision and many similar algorithms in the area.
Satellite tracking and brain-scan polygraphs
And what if we go even further and try to figure out the next forensic tool with which fancy CSI crime labs will be equipped in the distant future? Garry Rodgers, a retired homicide detective, and forensic coroner says he envisions satellite tracking chips being surgically implanted into dangerous offenders. Having wrist- or ankle-worn monitoring equipment on many criminals, the idea does not seem to be so far-fetched.
Rodgers also believes that brain mapping and analysis of how a subject responds under electroencephalography (EEG) and function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) might one day replace conventional polygraphs. The technology already exists, and research is underway towards its forensic application.
Are we heading towards pre-crime policing?
In Chicago, an algorithm has been created to predict its inhabitants’ potential involvement with violent crime, which creates a Strategic Subject List – known colloquially as the “heat list” – a comprehensive list of who it considers to be the most dangerous people in the city. In the UK, the Scotland Yard applies a predictive policing software known as PredPol being employed to predict areas where crimes may take place to deploy more officers to that area.
While predicting areas of danger or potential perpetrators might sound rational – no one gets hurt, the crime gets prevented -, it could come with significant drawbacks. How does an algorithm decide which area or human being to flag out? Will pre-crime policing be linked to online or social media behavior, not to speak about genetic profiling? What happens to people or places on the list of pre-policing? Where are the boundaries of privacy? To what extent will our societies give up their privacies for more security? Does constant surveillance mean more security?
Tough questions, which might not get any answers by tomorrow. Still, we have to discuss topics of security and privacy even if only in connection with forensic medicine. As at the moment, we are very far from achieving a state where there would be no crime at all, at least the tools for solving crimes and catching criminals are constantly improving. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson would be so proud to have such smart solutions help solve cases.
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