Brain fingerprinting' startup moving from Iowa to Seattle
By Luke Timmerman (c) Seattle Times Feb 2, 2004
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Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories, a startup with a controversial, almost science-fictionlike method of measuring brainwaves to detect lies or hidden thoughts, is moving from Iowa to try to build its business in Seattle.

The company's chairman and founder, Lawrence Farwell, said he is moving his six-person company this week so he can recruit from the area's pool of software developers and scientists.

It is moving into a temporary lab at the Washington Technology Center and looking for a permanent headquarters. Farwell hopes to someday expand to 300 employees.

Farwell, 54, a Seattle-born neuroscientist trained at the University of Illinois, has garnered national media exposure for his technique from the likes of CNN and the New York Times magazine and was named one of 100 innovators for the 21st century by Time magazine.

He has tested the "brain fingerprinting" method in collaboration with the CIA and FBI, and some early results were published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences two years ago. Next month, he's speaking to the convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

The method used a sensor-equipped headband to spot a brain impulse called P300. If a patient sees a word or image on a computer screen that's familiar in memory, Farwell said, the impulse will flash. If the word or image is unfamiliar, the impulse won't flash.

Bruce Lisanti, the company's chief operating officer, said the technique was tested in 170 people to determine whether they were FBI agents.

Researchers have been testing P300 impulses in small studies for years, but Farwell is among the most aggressive in pushing it for broad commercial use. He hopes the technology will be used to measure whether people recognize evidence of a crime, whether a person has been trained as a terrorist, or even whether advertisements were memorable.

"Any expert will tell you the science here is legitimate," he said. "The question here is how quickly we can apply it, not whether this works."

Some doubt Farwell's claim of 100 percent accuracy. Others worry that the test could be misused if it fell into the wrong hands.

Wrye Sententia, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, said her organization is worried that demand is so strong for improved screening of terrorists in airports that brain-scanning technologies could be used against people's will and rushed into the market before being proven accurate.

"We're all for it if people can use it to clear their name of a crime, but it should be a voluntary use," Sententia said. "But what a person knows and thinks is private, and this technology really pushes the question of whether thoughts are private."

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