The End of the Lie

Two University of Pennsylvania scientists have invented machines that can look into your brain and know when you’re lying. The implications are extraordinary — and pretty scary

Man has sifted truth and lies, it seems, as long as we’ve spoken to each other. Eve ate the snake’s apple, and we haven’t gotten over it since. We’re always looking out for that forked tongue.

The spoken word, the shrug, the sideways glance from one person, and then the analysis from the recipient — is there truth here? Or deceit? — all stir deep in our subconscious minds. Even babies, when confused, instinctively search a stranger’s face for signals of trust.

But what if some new technology overthrew our ideas of truth and deception? What if we tossed out all our padlocks, and airport metal detectors, and tax auditors? What if — to be clear — what if we killed the lie?

Such a revolution started not long ago. It started on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, in the Anatomy-Chemistry Building, beyond the basement with its spewing liquid nitrogen tanks, in a tiny, windowless room. That’s where it sits: one of the most important technological leaps in recent history. A truth machine.

Four subjects — three Pakistanis and I — recently served as human guinea pigs for experiments in the development of the machine. For about a month, the four of us strapped on headbands lined with infrared light detectors the size of dimes and sat in separate tiny, darkened rooms, in total sensory deprivation except for a single image flashed on a black screen.

There was no electric shock. No flashing light. No gunfire. The revolution started with something quieter, and more powerful.

A simple question: Is this card a spade?