When is the Whole Truth the Right Thing?
There is a great line in the movie Jurassic Park where the character Dr. Ian Malcolm, a chaos theorist says, “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
As a software company that has created a technology that can determine whether someone is lying at a very high degree of accuracy, we are often asked a similar ethical question: is it a good thing to know whether someone is lying. Is knowing the truth always the best? Is this an infringement of people’s agency that should be avoided?
What we do know is that humans are constantly lying. Most of it is not malicious or even harmful. Telling the truth all the time would most likely be exhausting and detrimental to our relationships.
Even so, we would argue there are two more important ways to think about the ethical question of uncovering the truth of others’ behavior. First, WHEN is knowing the truth the best outcome? And second, HOW to apply any verification technology to respect people’s agency.
First, there are certain behaviors that are especially damaging to relationships. These include infidelity, substance abuse, and other addictive behaviors, where the costs of engaging are born by others besides the perpetrator. Infidelity has relationship costs on the entire family. Substance abuse inflicts costs not only on the family, but on society as a whole, including social, economic, and political loss. In these cases, knowing the truth is necessary if any progress to rehabilitation and repair of any relationships is possible. To continue to live a lie with respect to these issues ensures that all involved will continue to suffer and be negatively affected.
If we agree that there are certain answers that are always better to have than not have, then the question becomes whether there are ways of acquiring that knowledge that are inappropriate. We argue that without consent, no technology should ever be applied to an individual not legally incarcerated or convicted. Truth verification, or lie detection, technology, is best used as a tool for accountability and insights, especially for knowledge that if known would help individuals recover from addictions or mistakes and couples, families, and communities to repair the relationships that create stability and happiness.
A scenario might illustrate. If a young man was struggling with pornography and wanted to change his habits, he might use technology as an accountability tool to help him keep commitments. An inappropriate use would be to have parents, friends, or other church or community leaders force their youth to take tests to “prove” their innocence. The simple test is whether an activity takes from an individual their agency.
Ultimately these new AI technologies have the potential to do tremendous good or bad, depending entirely on how they are implemented. We as the producers, investors, and leaders of these companies need to be careful in the decisions we make at this stage of the game.