Truth is the new fiction

In George Orwell’s 1984, the Thought Police monitor a population gripped by fear of terrorism and war. In 2003, it emerges that UK police are in discussions over the use of lie-detection technology in interview rooms.

In George Orwell’s dystopian future of 1984 the Thought Police monitor a population gripped by fear of terrorism and war.

In the real 2003 it emerges that UK police are in discussions over the use of lie-detection technology in interview rooms.

Probation services are training staff to use the systems to interrogate paroled sex offenders. The US government has started a concerted effort to develop its own ‘truth machines’ for military use.

And rumours are circulating in the US polygraphy community that the UK intelligence services have been taking a keener interest than ever in developments in the field. Orwell’s fiction suddenly seems more prophetic than ever.

Paedophiles, terrorists and spies can be stopped, we are told, if their claims of innocence can be proved to be lies. As technologically advanced societies become increasingly fearful any development that makes people think they are safer is deemed worthy of maximum investigation.

The public, it is assumed, will welcome any measure to make it feel more secure. This measure – to use technology to literally read the mind – is as extreme as they come. The truth in this case is, however, far from clear cut. Despite technical advances in the field, the human mind is still very much a mystery.

How, for example, will lie detection cope with false memory syndrome? What happens when innocent people, under the pressure of interrogation, begins to believe they might just be guilty? These things do really happen.

But the push to prove that lie detection can be effective goes on, even though experts say that its very basis has problems. It truly is the latest technological fix.

As in the case of the National Missile Defence programme ‘deception detection’ will be funded until the flaws are gone – or at least until a convincing case can be made that they are gone.

Cost is not an issue. The time it will take is the least of any researcher’s worries. As a potential palliative for a frightened population, elected politicians win votes by funding it, technologists enjoy long careers from investigating it and companies make millions by building it.

But even if all this activity succeeds in unlocking the mysteries of the mind, will the authorities using the technology become the problem rather than the solution? Perhaps Orwell himself was right again when he wrote: ‘Men are only as good as their technical development allows them to be’.