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

When I first showed up for experimentation, I followed the security guard’s instructions through the basement, down the hall, and across the dirty carpet toward 92-year-old Britton Chance’s office. A discarded church pew sat in the hallway, as recycled seating.

Chance and another scientist, Daniel Langleben, have each invented a truth machine and refined them in recent days, and will soon reveal them to the world. The machines work on the same principle: Unlike current so-called “lie detectors,” these new machines peer directly into the brain, sorting the gray matter into shades of black and white.

In the hallway, somebody pedaled past on a bicycle with a little squeezable horn on the handlebars. “Wheee!” At Dr. Chance’s office door, the rider climbed off the bike and removed his helmet: the doctor himself.

“Hello, hello,” he said, once seated in his office. “I’ll be with you in one minute.” Drifts of paper covered every level surface in the large space, and various electrical devices sat around half made or unmade. Assistants fluttered at his elbow.

Dr. Chance, now into his 10th decade, moves with the vigor of a younger man, and his face maintains a hawkish quality, always seeking to swoop down and devour knowledge. He seems to have lived the lives of several men; clues lay scattered around his office, in the form of little trinkets and baubles. Some were obvious, like photos of him shaking hands with various presidents. But as I stood waiting for him, other clues began to emerge, to connect, and to hint that Chance had lived the lives not of several ordinary men, but of several exceptional men.

He grew up in Philadelphia and became intrigued by science in his childhood, when his father developed a chemical detector that replaced canaries in coal mines. His father also took him sailing off the Atlantic coast, where big ships moved in and out of harbors. Chance noticed that those ships had a difficult and dangerous time steering, so he — a teenager — invented a simple autopilot device with a compass and mirror, then tested it himself aboard the New Zealand Star, on a trip from England to Australia.

He went on to earn numerous degrees and honors from schools like Cambridge, but Chance’s greatest asset — his gift — remained finding simple solutions for complex problems. During the Second World War, for instance, he helped the Allies win by taking two preexisting technologies — radar and bombs — and combining them to create something much more powerful: radar-guided bombs.

At home, he keeps a 450-pound stuffed marlin, a monstrous fish that any sportsman would proudly display. Chance reeled it in during a fishing duel with Ernest Hemingway, off a tropical island. A simple strategy ruled then, too. “He was in the Pilar, a big 30- or 40-foot boat,” Chance remembered. “We were in a little bait boat, and quick. We took his fish.”

In a corner of his office, I saw a faded photo of him as a younger man, in 1952. In it, he stands on an Olympic podium, receiving a gold medal for sailing. “Yes, yes,” he said quietly. “I do like sailing.” He later won another medal — the prestigious National Medal of Science — so presumably he likes science, too.

He calls his latest project — his truth machine — the Cognosensor. The machine grew from work he started around 1990, focused on how light and cells interact; his inventions led to advancements ranging from breast cancer detection to muscle dynamics. But his Cognosensor may change the world more than all his other inventions combined.

It looks essentially like a laptop computer attached to a Velcro band, which wraps around the head. “It’s infrared,” he said. “It projects red light through the skin and the skull and onto the cortex, and some of it comes out again. We measure that.”

Blood, he explained, absorbs more light than the surrounding tissue. When a person fabricates a lie, certain parts of his brain work harder than others, and require more blood. The Cognosensor tracks blood flow, searching for the pattern that indicates “lie” or — remarkably — “malevolent intent,” since both deception and plans to deceive spring from the same part of the brain.

“Homeland security is the name of the game we play,” he said. “Somebody was going to invent this technology. I figured it’s better us than somebody who wants to use it against us.”

His rationale, I said, seemed awfully similar to the arguments preceding the invention and use of the nuclear bomb. He smiled a thin, sad smile. “This,” he said of his new technology, “this is the ultimate weapon.”