Monday, January 25, 2010

A certain test for lying

I've commented several times about the question of what you would do if you could tell from a simple test at birth, maybe a blood test or EEG, that a kid had either a certainty or a  high probability of developing some bad thing, like alcoholism, or autism, or schizophrenia, or uncontrollable aggression.

This article in Science Daily asks a related question. Suppose it turns out, as some people claim, that truth-telling takes place in a different part of the brain than lying, and a cap studded with electrodes to read the brain is mass produced, and every courtroom and cop car can have a fool-proof way of telling if a person is lying. Would that be a good thing?

I predict that:
  • We will find such a brain difference between lying and truth-telling.
  • It will be accepted by the courts, though not without strong opposition from liberal fruitcakes like me, and probably before the science is really settled, as happened with "lie detectors." 
  • The science will not be as cut and dried as we wish.
  • Cops and prosecutors will fail to understand the nuances of reading the results, so there will be false positives for lying when the person is just confused.
  • Pathological liars will be found to have brain scans similar to truth-tellers.
  • States, counties, and cities will fund buying these new devices and pay for it by cutting social services. 
What will the society look like then? I don't usually have much truck with people who invoke 1984 and Big Brother, but this sure seems to me like a big step toward it.

But what is depressing to me is that I think it is inevitable. I truly believe we will find a way to tell truth-tellers from liars with a success rate good enough for cops and prosecutors, and once that happens, not voting to fund it will make a politician seem soft on crime. "Nobody would object except someone who wanted to be able to lie to cops and courts."

It's like a national ID. Yes, a national ID would be intrusive, and it would be an official end to privacy, but that war has already been lost. Privacy is gone. Some combination of market research companies and the NSA know everything about you except what you buy with cash, and they can probably make a good guess at that. So we might as well cowgirl up and accept a national ID, so at least the intrusion can be efficient and not confuse two people with the same name.

And while the truth cap is not even part of the debate yet, that battle is already lost. What I really fear is the possibility of claiming to be able to read more of a mind than just whether it is lying. The implications of this are enormous. I assume the ACLU has lawyers already thinking about it.

I'm not sure whether I think we liberals should fight tooth and nail or accept that some form of a truth cap is inevitable and work to make it a better system, as I think we should do with the idea of tying teacher pay to student performance. I might be feistier tomorrow, but right now, I think the big battle is lost.

Oh, crap. It just occurred to me that it would be possible to make the mind-reading caps wireless, so a person we think might be up to something might have to wear a cap, and when he thinks illegal thoughts, the computer listening to the cap back at the police station sounds an alarm to go pick him up. I shouldn't think about this stuff on Monday morning.


  1. A zillion years ago, when I was the editor of a computer magazine, and computers with a millionth the power of the one I'm writing on now were housed in warehouses, we were told that the internet would be Big Brother because the DoD was developing it for that purpose. Yeah, it is, but Little Brother -- and Little Sister -- are more powerful than Big Brother. There's no such thing anymore as something developed just for government and eventually "truth caps" can be clipped into a baseball cap when he isn't looking and then you say, "You're having an affair, aren't you?"

    Thanks, as always, for something fun to think about instead of working.

  2. When it is technologically possible, someone will do it.