How many marriages would last if we couldn't tell white lies?
TOM UTLEY: How many people’s marriages would last if we couldn’t tell white lies about how our wives look in a new frock?
TOM UTLEY: Try to imagine a future in which it will be impossible to tell a lie without being found out. This may sound like science fiction, but this week it came a great deal closer to reality…
Try to imagine a future in which it will be impossible to tell a lie without being found out.
This may sound like science fiction, but this week it came a great deal closer to reality, with the news that scientists have developed an artificial intelligence face scanner that can spot a liar with 73 per cent accuracy.
The technology, we’re told, reads minuscule movements in face muscles and nerves of which we’re not even aware. This makes it potentially a much more reliable guide to whether or not we are telling the truth than the polygraph lie detectors used at present, which canny fibbers have long been able to fool.
Though the scanner is still in the early stages of development, its designers say their work could pave the way for smart cameras that will be able to spot liars from a distance of several metres. And since AI programmes learn more all the time with every new snippet of evidence they digest, their claimed accuracy rate will surely rise ever closer to 100 per cent.
Indeed, I won’t be a bit surprised if within my sons’ lifetimes, let alone those of my grandchildren, people will be able to download a smartphone app that will purport to tell them, without a shadow of doubt, if the person they are talking to is telling a whopper.
Now, as someone who prides himself on being a moderately honest fellow, I thought at first that this sounded like a wonderful innovation.
For one thing, the technology would help clear the massive backlog in our courts in no time at all, if a camera pointed at the dock could tell the jury in an instant whether the defendant was telling the truth. The very moment he uttered the words ‘not guilty’, the AI would either condemn or acquit him.
Now that I come to think of it, the innocent would never be brought before a court in the first place, if the police were equipped with an infallible lie detector when they interrogated their suspect.
As Professor Dino Levy of Tel Aviv University points out, his team’s invention could also come in mighty handy at airports.
‘Are you travelling for the purposes of terrorism?’
‘Good heavens, no!’
‘Sorry, sir. Our camera proves that you are.’
It would be the same with online job interviews.
‘You say on your application form that your interests include 19th-century Russian literature and the history of science, you are a chess grandmaster, play the violin, love animals, captained your school rugby team and spent your gap year helping out in an African leper colony. Is any of this actually true?’
‘Every word of it, I assure you.’
Bzzzz. ‘Computer says no. Next, please.’
A brief diversion. I’m suddenly reminded of the playwright Tom Stoppard’s brilliant answer when he was interviewed for a job on a local newspaper. The editor asked him: ‘You say on your form that you’re interested in politics. So can you tell me the name of the Home Secretary?’
In the account that I’ve treasured since I first heard it decades ago, Stoppard replied: ‘I said I was interested in politics — not obsessed!’
How many marriages would survive, TOM UTLEY asks, if we couldn’t get away with the occasional white lie about how lovely our other halves look in that new frock, how delicious we thought tonight’s supper — or how we were unavoidably detained at the office before dropping into the pub for just the one?
But where was I? Ah, yes. When I read about the new lie-detector programme, the thought also occurred to me that if tiny movements in our face muscles could give us away, it surely wouldn’t be long before someone came up with similar technology to detect tell-tale fluctuations in a liar’s vocal cords.
Wouldn’t it be a joy, I reflected, if all telephones could be fitted with devices that could tell by the sound of a caller’s voice if he or she were telling the truth?
For a start, we’d be able to challenge workshy colleagues — we’ve all known them — who put on special croaky voices to ring the office on a Monday morning, claiming to be housebound with food poisoning or flu.
We may have our strong suspicions that they’re lying. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tell them, with absolute certainty, that they’re telling a pack of porkies and should report for duty immediately?
We’d know, too, if the garage mechanic really meant it when he assured us that the car would be fixed by the morning.
Technology like this would also protect the vulnerable, once and for all, from the fraudsters who pester us daily from far-off lands, seeking to get their hands on our hard-earned dosh.
(‘Good morning, Mr Yootley. How are you today? I’m ringing from your bank to advise you that a suspicious payment of £1,256 has just been made from your account…’)
OK, you and I may have learned — some of us from bitter experience — that we should never trust anyone who calls out of the blue claiming to represent a reputable company. But how reassuring it would be to have a safety feature on our telephones which would flash red the moment anyone told us a lie.
As for mendacious politicians the world over, how grateful they must be that Professor Levy’s technology has yet to be perfected. And what suffering the world might have been spared if, say, Tony Blair had been made to look a smart camera in the lens when he assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, ready for deployment within 45 minutes.
Such were my initial reflections, anyway, when I first read of this remarkable scientific breakthrough. But the more I’ve thought about it since, the more uncomfortable I find it.
How many marriages would survive, I wonder, if we couldn’t get away with the occasional white lie about how lovely our other halves look in that new frock, how delicious we thought tonight’s supper — or how we were unavoidably detained at the office before dropping into the pub for just the one?
And what sort of Christmas would we have if we were compelled to express our true feelings about our presents?
Even at the best of times, in my experience, the season of goodwill has never been noted for domestic harmony. How much worse it would be if Auntie Ethel could tell for sure that we were lying, with a glance at her smartphone, when we told her the hideous vase she’d given us was just what we’d always wanted.
Even in politics, where truth matters more than anywhere else, isn’t it sometimes forgivable to announce that a Minister is leaving office by ‘mutual consent’ or to ‘spend more time with their family’, instead of coming out with the brutal truth that they’ve been sacked for being useless?
As for a dear friend of mine (let’s call him Joe Smith), who is always getting into trouble with the bookies, I fear he would have had his legs broken by now if a couple of heavies who came to his door had been equipped with Professor Levy’s technology.
‘Mr J. Smith?’ they asked him.
‘Um, yes,’ he said nervously.
‘It’s about the money you owe for your betting…’
Thinking quickly, my friend said: ‘Oh, you want Joe. He’s my brother. I’m Jim. I’m afraid Joe is embedded with our troops in Afghanistan, reporting on the war. You won’t be able to reach him for a long while.’
Fortunately for him, the heavies believed him and went on their way.
I know. Most reprehensible. But just once in a while, surely, telling a whopper can be the lesser of two evils. Indeed, I reckon this would be a much crueller world if we couldn’t get away with the occasional face-saving (or leg-saving) fiction.
Of course, everyone could tell when Pinocchio told a lie. It was as plain as the tell-tale nose on his face. I can’t say I envy my poor grandchildren, growing up in a world where technology may have precisely the same effect.
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