The Long Problematic History of ‘Truth Machines’

May 5, 2017

Courts are relying on racist algorithms in judicial decisions — apparently we’ve learned nothing from the rise and fall of the polygraph.

When Brisha Borden was arrested and charged with stealing a bike in 2014, she became part of an experiment in forensic technology. Standing before a judge at a bail hearing, Borden was evaluated by a cutting-edge computer algorithm called COMPAS, which crunched the facts it knew about her — her background, her education level, her family history — and gave her a score predicting her likelihood of committing future crimes. Borden was deemed a high risk. The judge set her bond at $1,000.

COMPAS, which stands for Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, was supposed to take the guesswork and human bias out of judicial decisions such as setting bail, but the technology has come under scrutiny ever since ProPublica covered Borden’s case, among others, last year. Critics say the supposedly unbiased algorithm preserves the biased assumptions of its creators, assigning higher risk values to people of color. COMPAS and other sentencing algorithms have been painted as futuristic dystopia coming true.

But COMPAS has a predecessor.

Cecil Loniello was born 85 years before Brisha Borden, but he too was subjected to a cutting-edge piece of technology that was supposed to eliminate human guesswork and deliver a pure form of scientific justice. In Loniello’s case, he was the first person to be convicted with the help of a polygraph machine.

A polygraph machine is very different from a computer program like COMPAS. But as we grapple with the influence algorithms are having on our criminal justice system, it would be informative to take a look at the history of the lie detector. Just like COMPAS, the polygraph debuted with the promise that it would supersede human uncertainty and bias to determine, with quantifiable accuracy, something that might otherwise seem unknowable. But in fact, it’s hard not to build our prejudices into machines. And when we rely on that technology, problems arise.

The idea that lying causes a minute, but telltale, physiological reaction is an ancient one. In his 1981 history of the polygraph, David Lykken traced this idea back at least to a 1730 treatise on criminality by Daniel Defoe. “Guilt carries fear always about with it, there is a tremor in the blood of a thief, that, if attended to, would effectually discover him,” Defoe wrote.

In the early 20th century, various physiologists, psychiatrists and police officers tinkered with the idea of a device that could detect such tremors (one early developer was William Moulton Marston, who also invented Wonder Woman and her magical lasso of truth). The veritable “truth machine” that emerged measured several physiological responses: pulse rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, perspiration. These were the factors that the machine’s developers believed would indicate a lie — just as COMPAS was designed around factors believed to predict recidivism, like the arrest records of a person’s parents and whether their friends take drugs.

In the case of the polygraph, the obvious problem was human beings are more complicated than a handful of physiological changes. In fact, all kinds of emotions can trigger these responses.

“Anger at being asked accusatory questions; anxiety about not being believed; embarrassment at being asked a personal question — there’s an almost limitless number of potential causes for these physiological responses that have almost nothing to do with deception,” said George Maschke, a former US Army intelligence officer and polygraph opponent. ”There’s no ‘Pinocchio response’ that someone exhibits when lying.”

A few years before being used to convict Cecil Loniello, a prototype polygraph machine had been exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, and its introduction coincided “with the wave of technological innovation that had brought Americans electricity, radios, telephones, and cars,” as Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker. As early as 1911, Talbot noted, the New York Times had envisioned a future in which science would do away with such things as policemen, judges, and juries: “These impediments of our courts will be unnecessary. The State will merely submit all suspects in a case to the tests of scientific instruments.” In the polygraph, that prophecy seemed to come true.

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