In 1996, James Halperin published a book called The Truth Machine describing a future where man had created a device that could tell whether or not a person was lying with 100% accuracy. Today we learn from The Stanford Center for Law & the Biosciences Blog that an evaluation of a person's truthfulness using NO Lie MRI's truth detection machine has been offered as evidence in a court in Southern California. Is Halperin's futuristic vision about to come true?
This is huge news, representing one of the first (the first?) such attempts to bring fMRI brain scanning based lie detection evidence to the court. Regardless of whether or not the court admits NO Lie MRI's evidence in this particular case, several more such requests are sure to arise all across the nation in the coming years. The creation of a near 100% reliable truth machine would literally rewrite the rules of human society. The technology would not be used only in court cases, but also in business and in people's homes to validate the honesty of children, employees, and business counterparts.
The technology behind NO Lie MRI's truth detection machine, as well as that of competitor Cephos, relies on a technique called fMRI. We have reported exenstively about the use of fMRI to evaluate the thoughts inside a person's brain here and here. The quick explanation is that by monitoring the blood flow to thousands of sections of the brain, called voxels, certain patterns can be extracted that represent what a person is thinking.
Researchers are able to evaluate the object a person is thinking about, such as a hammer or a house, with high accuracy (often 90% or higher). It is well known that lying can also be detected with similar accuracy, yet problems abound in bringing lie detection to the courts. Even with 99.9% accuracy, it could be argued that this is not good enough when someone's legal fate is on the line. There is also the complication of questions that have answers that are perhaps half true. When asked "were you in the room when the crime occured" is the person lying if they say no, yet were looking and listening in on the room even though not physically in it?
Undeterred by these challenges, No Lie MRI is aggressively moving to bring brain scanning lie detectors to the world, even as many critics claim the technology is not yet ready for prime time. Scienceline has an excellent story that describes the playing field.
The technology, it is current form, still needs much improvement, but a lot can happen in 10-20 years! Even as fMRI matures and becomes more capable, other techniques such using electrodes to talk directly to the brain are seeing significant success in in the lab. Liars beware!