“A Truth Machine: Can Brain-Scanning Technologies Stop Terrorists — Or Just Threaten Privacy?”

Ronald Bailey reports for Reason magazine’s ReasonOnline website. Excerpt:

“It’s happening much faster than I thought it would,” says James Halperin, author of the 1996 science fiction novel The Truth Machine. The novel describes how humanity would react to the invention of an infallible lie detector in the year 2024. “When I was talking about the concept of a truth machine back in the 1990s, a neuroscientist friend told me that his best guess was that it would be 50 years, if ever, before such a thing could be created,” says Halperin. “I picked 2024 as the date so that the idea wouldn’t seem too ridiculous.”

However, recent advances in brain-scanning techniques may bring about the development of a kind of truth machine sooner rather than later. These techniques, if validated through more research, could replace fallible polygraph tests, which some argue are no more accurate than chance in determining guilt or innocence. Self-described “polygraph victims” George Maschke and Gino Scalabrini explain how federal agencies ruin lives by relying on polygraphy to screen applicants for sensitive jobs despite the fact that polygraph tests are so bad that U.S. courts refuse to allow their results to be admitted as evidence in trials.

But the science of detecting deception might be coming of age. Dr. Lawrence Farwell, a psychiatrist who heads the Human Brain Research Laboratory in Fairfield, Iowa, has developed a technique he calls “brain fingerprinting.”

“It’s not actually a lie detector,” explains Farwell. “Instead it detects whether or not certain information is stored in a person’s brain.” He likens brain fingerprinting to finding fingerprints or DNA traces at a crime scene. The presence of a person’s fingerprints or DNA at a crime scene does not tell investigators whether the person is guilty or not. After all, there may well be an innocent explanation for how they got there. Similarly, brain fingerprinting does not tell investigators whether a suspect is guilty or not, just that specific information is or is not present in his or her brain.

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