The Truth Machine is a science fiction novel by James L Halpering published in 1996. Halperin anticipates an infallible lie detector invented by a fictional genius, Randall Peterson “Pete” Armstrong. Soon, every citizen must pass a thorough test under the Armstrong Cerebral Image Processor (ACPI) to get a job or receive any sort of license.
Halpering was truly prescient, because that machine was being created while he was writing. The genius behind was not Pete Randall, but Lawrence Edward Page, together with his colleague Sergei Brin. The machine started operations in 1998 under brand name Google.
Everybody lies. Yes, all the time and for a wide spectrum of good and not so good reasons. Specifically, speaking about oneself is precisely when people are most likely to exaggerate, obfuscate, embellish, omit key facts or tell tall tales. Nobody knows better than a judge: We lie…
– to protect our privacy (“No, I don’t live around here”);
– to avoid hurt feelings (“Friday is my study night”);
– to make others feel better (“Gee you’ve gotten skinny”);
– to avoid recriminations (“I only lost $10 at poker”);
– to prevent grief (“The doc says you’re getting better”);
– to maintain domestic tranquility (“She’s just a friend”);
– to avoid social stigma (“I just haven’t met the right woman”);
– for career advancement (“I’m sooo lucky to have a smart boss like you”);
– to avoid being lonely (“I love opera”);
– to eliminate a rival (“He has a boyfriend”);
– to achieve an objective (“But I love you so much”);
– to defeat an objective (“I’m allergic to latex”);
– to make an exit (“It’s not you, it’s me”);
– to delay the inevitable (“The check is in the mail”);
– to communicate displeasure (“There’s nothing wrong”);
– to get someone off your back (“I’ll call you about lunch”);
– to escape a nudnik (“My mother’s on the other line”);
– to namedrop (“We go way back”);
– to set up a surprise party (“I need help moving the piano”);
– to buy time (“I’m on my way”);
– to keep up appearances (“We’re not talking divorce”);
– to avoid taking out the trash (“My back hurts”);
– to duck an obligation (“I’ve got a headache”);
– to maintain a public image (“I go to church every Sunday”);
– to make a point (“Ich bin ein Berliner”);
– to save face (“I had too much to drink”);
– to humor (“Correct as usual, King Friday”);
– to avoid embarrassment (“That wasn’t me”);
– to curry favor (“I’ve read all your books”);
– to get a clerkship (“You’re the greatest living jurist”);
– to save a dollar (“I gave at the office”);
– or to maintain innocence (“There are eight tiny reindeer on the rooftop”)….
But, how can we know for sure? Forget about the polygraph. Internet searches offer an unprecedented peek into people’s psyches. At the privacy of our keyboards, we confess everything. The overlooked act of typing a word or a phrase into a rectangular white box leaves a small trace of truth that, when multiplied by millions, eventually reveal profound realities.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has used Google searches to measure racism, self-induced abortion, depression, child abuse, hateful mobs, the science of humour, sexual preference, anxiety, son preference, and sexual insecurity, among many other topics. “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are” is the title of his new book. Seth’s work points to a new path for social science in the XXI century.
Of course, all these studies do not use individual data, but the data is there. In his novel, Halpering’s protagonist places a back door in his lie detector. He adds covert instructions allowing him to avoid detection by repeating fragments of Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” in his mind.
Knowing how keen smart programmers are on hidden tricks, I am pretty sure there is keyword Larry and Sergei can use to make sure their searches cannot be searched. Can you figure it out?
Featured Image: Sharon Stone with a polygraph examiner in Basic Instinct, via Daily Beast