Technology seems to be advancing at a record pace. Claims about possibilities that once seemed unthinkable are now commonplace. Maybe, it has been suggested, technology can distinguish gay people from straight people from facial features. Maybe technology can detect emotions from the face, or clues that a person is lying. And maybe that technology can be incorporated into something wearable, such as glasses. Then we could wear those glasses and learn things about other people that, just a short time ago, we could never have fathomed.
Suppose all this were true, and you could know, with 100% accuracy, what another person was thinking and feeling. Does that sound appealing to you?
First, think about this from the perspective of the person whose once-private thoughts and feelings are now knowable to everyone with access to the technology. Anyone could now know, with total certainty, when you are lying and when you are telling the truth.
To me, it sounds appalling.
It is bad enough that my nonverbal behaviors can give away emotions I’d rather keep to myself, even to people with no technological assistance at reading them. Under this Brave New World scenario, I would have no control whatsoever over what people knew.
Sometimes, I’d like to think, I have good reasons for keeping things to myself. In some instances, I’m still dealing with issues myself, and not yet ready to share my feelings with others. Other times, I don’t want other people to know what I’m thinking or feeling about them because it is not very kind, and I’d rather not hurt them with those painful truths.
Now consider the question from the perspective of the person who gets to wear the magical glasses and know exactly what other people are thinking and feeling. Does that sound good? I used to do a lot of research on deception, and I learned that in many of the lies of everyday life, people pretend to feel more positively than they really do. If they dislike you, they may try to cover that up. If they are bored by what you are saying, they might make the effort to appear interested. Do you really want to know how people really do feel about you?
I don’t do much work on deception these days, but I’ve been thinking about this because a reporter asked me what I thought about the implications of having technological devices that could detect deception with perfect accuracy.
His question reminded me of my very first job interview as a new PhD. I gave a talk at the University of Pennsylvania, and the eminent sociologist Erving Goffman showed up to listen. I was talking about the detection of deception. When my talk was over, I was greatly relieved to be done with it, and was headed to the bathroom for a different kind of relief. Goffman followed me down the hallway until I was at the door of the ladies’ room. He was still a few paces behind me and called out, “What do you think would happen if we learned to detect lies perfectly?”
I thought to myself, “we’ll never get that good,” but I paused because I wasn’t sure I wanted to say that. While I thought for a moment, he said, “You know what I think? I think we’ll never get that good!”
I still think that’s true, and it is true of the technological detection of deception as well as the kind of deception detection I was discussing in my talk – unaided human lie detection.
A big problem is that sometimes the technology is going to get it wrong. The gravity of the consequences depend on how the technology is being used. Is it in a criminal context, in which a person’s guilt or innocence is being judged? Will technological lie-detection tools become so inexpensive and portable/wearable that they become ubiquitous and people use them in everyday interactions? Even in casual settings, getting led astray by inaccurate technology can be consequential, especially if the technology gets it wrong in a smearing way – declaring someone deceptive who is actually telling the truth.
If technology gets used in those kinds of ways, it will probably be experienced as an invasion of privacy. It is also one more barrier to direct, unmediated, human-to-human interaction. It is one more way in which we are not fully present with one another as fellow humans.
Another issue is that not only will technology get things wrong some of the time, but we humans won’t know when it is getting things right and when it is getting things wrong. People are rightly offended, sometimes even incensed, when they are falsely accused of lying in everyday life. Imagine how much angrier they will feel when some piece of technology damned them, and some other human believed the technology over them.
I also wonder whether our ability to detect deception without the aid of any technology – which is already fairly unimpressive – could become even worse if we start depending on technology. Maybe we would become even less attentive to other people’s behavior and their feedback if we decided to lean on technological answers.
The movie Liar, Liar, starring Jim Carrey, was based on the promising premise of a lawyer who could not tell a lie for 24 hours. I thought the follow-through was disappointing. With that premise, it could have been a whole lot funnier. But that’s where total transparency belongs – in the movies.