[Paleopsych] BBC: The future of lying

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Sun Jan 23 18:26:30 UTC 2005

The future of lying

    By Chris Summers
    BBC News

    As the British government unveils plans to make lie detector tests
    mandatory for convicted paedophiles, some scientists in the US are
    working on more advanced technology which might be better equipped at
    detecting deception.

    Imagine the Pentagon equipped with a machine which can read minds.
    Sound like the plot of a Hollywood thriller?

    Well, it might not be that far away.

    The US Department of Defense has given Dr Jennifer Vendemia a $5m
    grant to work on her theory that by monitoring brainwaves she can
    detect whether someone is lying.

    She claims the system has an accuracy of between 94% and 100% and is
    an improvement on the existing polygraph tests, which rely on heart
    rate and blood pressure, respiratory rate and sweatiness.

    Her system involves placing 128 electrodes on the face and scalp,
    which translate brainwaves in under a second. Subjects only have to
    hear interrogators' questions to give a response.

    But the system has a long way to go before it replaces polygraphs,
    which were invented almost a century ago and remain a tried and tested
    system of deception detection.

    Paedophile tests

    On Thursday the UK government unveiled its Management of Offenders and
    Sentencing Bill.

    West Midlands
    Thames Valley
    Greater Manchester
    Leicestershire and Rutland
    Devon and Cornwall
    Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire

    A key plank of the bill is increasing the use of polygraph tests for
    convicted paedophiles who have been released on licence.

    A voluntary scheme has been running in 10 pilot areas in England since
    September 2003.

    But under the new bill the tests will become compulsory for
    paedophiles in the 10 pilot areas.

    They are asked whether they have had contact with children, while
    having their anxiety levels measured.

    But some critics believe the polygraph is flawed.

    "The idea with polygraphs is that there is a tell-tale physical
    response associated with deception and I just don't accept that is

    "Even if it were true for the normal person then I don't think it's
    true for psychopaths, or others with mental abnormalities," says
    Steven Aftergood, of the Federation American Sciences.

    The mouth may lie, but the face it makes nonetheless tells the truth
    Friedrich Nietzsche

    Mr Aftergood says he doesn't know about Dr Vendemia's invention but
    "if there was a machine which was able to read people's minds, it
    would give greater urgency to questions of people's privacy.

    "In the United States it could even be unconstitutional because, under
    the Fifth Amendment, citizens have a right not to self-incriminate

    In the US a specific piece of legislation, the Employee Polygraph
    Protection Law, forbids firms from using lie detectors to vet workers.

    The one exception is the intelligence community, where polygraphs are
    a ubiquitous form of checking on existing and potential employees.

    Dr Vendemia says her system would be an improvement on polygraphs.

    "If you are examined by a good interrogator a polygraph will be 85 to
    90% accurate," she says. "But others have less than 50% accuracy. My
    technology has levels of accuracy around 94 to 100%."

    Dr Vendemia says her research has found it takes longer for the brain
    to process lies, than to process the truth and this, she says, can be
    tested by monitoring the brainwaves.

    Her work is funded by US government grants but she says there were
    ethical questions which arose from it.

    Could it be used, for example, to help in the interrogation of
    innocent people accused of being al-Qaeda terrorists?

    "Anything can be misused. As a researcher working with technology
    which has huge implications you have a responsibility to make sure
    that what you are doing is ethical and make sure there is someone more
    objective than you looking at what you do," says Dr Vendemia.

    Professor Paul Matthews, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, says a
    mind-reading machine is pure science fiction. "There is no technology
    which can tell somebody what you are thinking. But you can see what
    sort of areas of the brain are active. It is the same sort of
    technology which is used in hospitals with MRI and EEG scanners."

    Tor Butler-Cole, a philosopher and ethicist from King's College,
    London, thinks we should be wary of allowing this technology to be
    used if it is not 100% accurate.

    "The recent controversy with cot deaths has taught us that we should
    be aware of relying on science which may turn out to be wrong," she

    Ms Butler-Cole believes there is also the danger jurors would give it
    a lot of credibility simply because it was "scientific evidence".

    Dr Vendemia was one of a number of experts discussing the subject of
    "Criminal Memories" in a special debate at the Dana Centre in London
    on Thursday. The event will be shown on a webcast next week.

    A polygraph works on principle that a person who is lying will show
    signs of stress
    Pneumographs (1) measure breathing rate
    Galvanometers (2) test how much the subject is sweating by measuring
    skin's electrical resistance
    Cuff (3) measures heart rate and BP which increase under stress
    The results from each instrument appear as wave patterns
    By comparing the patterns with those when the subject was definitely
    telling the truth, the examiner can spot a potential lie

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