Neuroscientist Sam Harris answers the Edge Foundation’s annual question for 2009, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” with a commentary titled “True Lie Detection.” Excerpt:
When evaluating the social cost of deception, one must consider all of the misdeeds — marital infidelities, Ponzi schemes, premeditated murders, terrorist atrocities, genocides, etc. — that are nurtured and shored-up, at every turn, by lies. Viewed in this wider context, deception commends itself, perhaps even above violence, as the principal enemy of human cooperation. Imagine how our world would change if, when the truth really mattered, it became impossible to lie.
The development of mind-reading technology is in its infancy, of course. But reliable lie-detection will be much easier to achieve than accurate mind reading. Whether on not we ever crack the neural code, enabling us to download a person’s private thoughts, memories, and perceptions without distortion, we will almost surely be able to determine, to a moral certainty, whether a person is representing his thoughts, memories, and perceptions honestly in conversation. Compared to many of the other hypothetical breakthroughs put forward in response to this year’s Edge question, the development of a true lie-detector would represent a very modest advance over what is currently possible through neuroimaging. Once this technology arrives, it will change (almost) everything.