"This is the first technology that allows lying to be measured or lying to be detected without any contact with the subject whatsoever instantaneously, in real time," said lead researcher James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "You don't need to hook them up to anything -- you don't need any sophisticated experts to analyze the data."
The researchers say prototypes of the device may aid security operations within the next two years, in areas such as airports and border checkpoints. However, Levine also is concerned about the potential ethical ramifications of the technology if it ever becomes developed for the open market.
"If this technology really becomes developed to the desktop phase, you could be sitting in front of your boss and he could ask you 'Do you think you can meet your deadline?' And you can say, 'Sure, of course,' and he'd say, 'I know you're lying,'" Levine said in an interview with United Press International. "Or, on a date, one's boyfriend could say to a person, 'Are you serious about wanting to get married?' and when she answers the question, she's being photographed."
"On the other hand, when thinking about the possibility of someone with explosives in his shoes boarding a plane, given the technology's security potential, I think most of us would want this application to be accelerated as quickly as possible," Levine added. "We're making advances in science, and I think the ethical issues need to be dealt with when the advances are being made. Otherwise ethics gets left behind," he said.
The device consists of a high-definition thermal imaging camera the size of a shoebox. The scientists also have developed a miniaturized version of the camera, roughly the diameter of a postage stamp. Both are hooked up to a filing cabinet's worth of computer hardware.
"As people lie, there is a massive increase in blood flow around the eyes, and associated with that there is sudden warming around the eyes, where the color changes to white in the thermal imaging system," Levine explained.
The researchers made their discovery accidentally three years ago while studying, of all things, gum chewing. They were using the thermal imaging device to study the facial muscles at work to analyze how physical activity affected metabolism.
"We got these beautiful thermal images every time someone chewed gum, and by accident we detected the very subtle changes that occur in the face with fearfulness -- there was a loud bang when a book fell on the lab floor," Levine told UPI. "The changes in the face that came with that were very consistent with several individuals. And we thought, 'My goodness, if this can detect these very subtle changes instantaneously, perhaps we can see these same changes with lying.'"
The research team had 20 volunteers commit a mock crime and then assert innocence under experimental conditions at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute in Fort Jackson, S.C.
Eight of the volunteers stabbed a mannequin and stole $20 from it, while the rest had no knowledge of the crime. The device accurately detected lying roughly 80 percent of the time, a precision level comparable to standard lie detecting polygraph tests performed by experts.
"Is the method detecting stress or deceit?" commented physicist Gerry Yonas, principal scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. He suggested the researchers needed to further compare this new data with other methods of stress and deceit detection.
Levine agreed more evaluation was needed under a variety of conditions outside the laboratory, taking into account factors such as wind speed or what people had to eat.
"If this technology has the remote possibility to do what it could do, it's mandatory to get this carefully evaluated as soon as humanly possible," Levine said.
The researchers reported their findings in the journal Nature.
(Reported by Charles Choi in New York.)