Lie detector able to read minds?

By Steve Rock
Dubuque Telegraph Herald

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As a detective in the Blue Springs, Mo., Police Department, Troy Pharr looks forward to the day when lie detection is fail-safe.

It would be the "next great step" in the investigative process, he said, something that would help put criminals behind bars.

As a citizen, though, he's not quite as excited about the prospect of a bulletproof lie detector.

"It's a little scary," he said. "Where do we go from there?"

Steven Laken wants to find out.

Because if he's right - and if his product is as good as he believes it is - the culture of police investigations, airport security checks and U.S. court proceedings might never be the same.

Very simply, Laken wants to read your mind.

He wants to see if you're lying, to apply science in a way that offers practically indisputable proof of your honesty ... or lack thereof. He wants to use functional magnetic resonance imaging - or fMRI, as it's known - to measure neurological activity in your brain.

"This is cutting-edge science," Laken said by telephone from Massachusetts, where he's the founder and CEO of Cephos Corp. "There are unique and discrete parts of the brain that are activated when people are lying.

"We can see that activation. We can see if you're lying."

Simple, right?

Not so fast, critics say.

They believe in the power of fMRI and its ability to measure neurological activity. Some of them even believe it might one day be an invaluable investigative tool, that it might be everything Laken said it could be.

But they don't believe that time has come.

"The science may be there 10 to 20 years from now, maybe sooner, maybe never," said Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences. "But it's not there yet."

That doesn't dissuade Laken. Or Joel Huizenga, founder and CEO of No Lie MRI in California.

Huizenga envisions the day when airport security consists of a friendly guard standing at the gate and asking with a smile, "Do you have any weapons with you today?"

Laken is even more ambitious, imagining the technology being used in civil lawsuits, or as part of a homeowner's disclosure requirements when selling a house, or even in the world of sports.

Steroids, anyone?

Here's how fMRI works:

When people lie, specific areas of their brains work harder than when they're telling the truth. This requires increased blood flow and oxygen, and fMRI measures the difference in oxygen and blood usage.

In essence, fMRI captures the lie at its core.

Compare that with the polygraph, which is not a lie detector at all. It doesn't measure the lie itself, but instead measures physiological changes believed to be associated with lying: increased heart rate and irregular breathing, for example.

The results of polygraph tests, while widely used by local police departments and federal agencies like the FBI, are so unreliable that they are inadmissible in virtually every court in the country.

Still, the polygraph is more popular than fMRI.

No governmental agency is working with Laken or Huizenga, they said, and scientists who study fMRI said commercial attempts were dangerously premature. They said that enough testing had not been done and that 90 percent accuracy rates might not hold up outside the controlled environment of a laboratory.

Plus, they don't know if all lies trigger the same neurological activity. Does the brain of a man answering the question "Honey, do I look fat in this dress?" respond the same way that a hardened criminal's does in a legal interrogation?

"We don't have the foggiest idea of whether different sorts of lies show up the same way," Greely said.

So Laken will keep plugging away. He has enlisted O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro as a supporter, and Laken said he would use the technology "tomorrow" if the right customer knocked on his door.

That has happened for Huizenga, who said he had "more than a handful" but fewer than 100 clients. He has a single testing facility, in Los Angeles, where customers pay $10,000 to prove their innocence.

Meanwhile, the unit chief for the FBI's polygraph program said brain-wave assessment one day might be part of determining credibility.

"All the research shows that," Robert Hilland said, adding that "fMRI would be one manner in which we could look at that."  
Copyright 2007 Woodward Communications, Inc.
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