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

It’s simple. Almost frighteningly simple. And the next phase of the Cognosensor’s development, Chance said, is already under way: remote sensing. That means that someday in the not-too-distant future, we’ll no longer need security searches at the airport, or metal detectors, or bomb-sniffing dogs. We’ll simply stroll toward the airplane while a security guard across the terminal aims a penlight at our foreheads, searching for malevolent intent.

If the Cognosensor sounds farfetched, it’s not. Chance tested it recently at the Department of Defense with what he called accurate results, but he deferred to the DoD for specific numbers. (The DoD’s counterintelligence department declined to address specifics or grant an interview, but noted that the DoD continues “to research new technologies.”)

While we talked, Chance wore a shirt embroidered with the acronym DARPA. That’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a sort of wizards’ lair within the Department of Defense where scientists dream up and create new technologies. It has spawned such creations as the Internet, but also other more controversial offspring — like the Information Awareness Office, a far-reaching government program aimed at achieving “total information awareness” — that critics have decried as frighteningly Orwellian. Chance acknowledged that his Cognosensor does come with some ominous overtones. For instance: For all our love of truth, do we truly want to abolish the lie? “So many crises are avoided by a white lie. Would we really want to change that?” he said. “It’s a mess of moral and ethical issues. We must be very careful.”

I asked Arthur Caplan, the internationally respected Penn bioethicist, for his opinion on the truth machines. “We’re talking about remote observation. It’s like the proliferation of the cameras that watch us on the street,” he said.

“Only this is inside your head.”