BioSci Fi: Asimov on Cognitive Liberty (sort of)

The CLB blog has an occasional series on BioSci Fi – science fiction involving, at least to some extent, on bioscience. Today’s entry is from a 1955 short story by Isaac Asimov, collected, with a dozen other stories, in a 1968 book called Asimov’s Mysteries. I am addicted to (or at least psychologically dependent on) reading before going to sleep. The other night, looking for something light, I pulled from a shelf my 1969 paperback copy of that book, complete with brittle yellow pages, and started reading it, probably for the first time since 1969.

The story in question, The Singing Bell, is the first in the collection and is one of four featuring Dr. Wendell Urth. Urth is Asimov’s equivalent to Mycroft Holmes, a brilliant, reclusive, scholar who is useful for solving the occasional puzzle. The story – one of murder – is not particularly interesting except for Asimov’s introduction and treatment of an apparent kind of mind-reading device, the never-explained “psychoprobe.” What intrigued me, and led me to write this post, was Asimov’s discussion of the legal limitations that had been put on the use of the device, which included a principle that “the right to mental fundamental.” But that plays out in some interesting ways. Here’s the whole passage:

Dr. Urth said “Wouldn’t it be simple to use the psychoprobe, now that its use has been legalized?”

Davenport scowled and the scar of his cheek turned livid. “Have you read the Konski-Hiakawa law, Dr. Urth?”


“I think no one has. The right to mental privacy, the government says, is fundamental. All right, but what follows? The man who is psychoprobed and proves innocent of the crime for which he was psychoprobed is entitled to as much compensation as he can persuade the courts to give him. In a recent case a bank cashier was awarded twenty-five thousand dollars for having been psychoprobed on inaccurate suspicion of theft. It seems that the circumstantial evidence which seemed to point to theft actually pointed to a small spot of adultery. His claim that he lost his job, was threatened by the husband in question, and put in bodily fear, and finally was help up to ridicule and contumely because a news-strip man learned the results of the problem held good in court.”

“I can see the man’s point.”

“So can we all. That’s the trouble. One more item to remember: Any man who has been psychoprobed once for any reason can never be psychoprobed again for any reason. No one man, the law says, shall be placed in mental jeopardy twice in his lifetime.”


“Exactly. In the two years since the psychoprobe has been legalized I couldn’t count the number of crooks and chiselers who’ve tried to get themselves psychoprobed for purse-snatching so that they could play the racquets safely afterwards. So you see the Department will not allow Peyton to be psychoprobed until they have firm evidence of his guilt. Not legal evidence, maybe, but evidence that is strong enough to convince my boss. The worst of it, Dr. Urth, is that if we come into court without a psychoprobe record, we can’t win. In a case as serious as murder, not to have used the psychoprobe is proof enough to the dumbest juror that the prosecution isn’t sure of its ground.”

Isaac Asimov, The Singing Bell, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (January 1955), reprinted in Asimov’s Mysteries, 17, 28-29 (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968)

It’s nice to see Asimov endorse (I think) the idea of cognitive liberty – Nita Farahany will, no doubt, want to cite him! But, more concretely, if neuroscience-based mind-reading or lie detection approaches feasibility, the story is a nice warning to think through all the possible consequences of not just the use of such techniques, but of their regulation.

That lesson may be the highest and best use of the volume, other than feeding an addiction to reading before sleep. The stories are not Asimov’s best; they rely heavily on clever puzzles, often with a chemistry connection (his PhD was in biochemistry), and occasional bad to terrible puns. The world’s shortest judicial opinion: “A niche in time saves Stein” is perhaps the worst. And they do not particularly engage the biosciences, though The Singing Bell does hinge on the vaguely bioscience issue of acclimation to the Moon’s gravity. Still, law and the biosciences nuggets may turn up any place or time even in bed, just before turning out the lights.

Hank Greely

Director, Center for Law and the Biosciences

Director, Stanford Program in Neuroscience and Society