The Poor Man's Polygraph | Cyber | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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The Poor Man's Polygraph 

Truster finds the fibbers among friends

Wednesday, Jul 7 1999
Art by Santiago Uceda
I'VE NEVER BEEN MUCH GOOD AT TELLING THE TRUE from the not true. Neither growing up Catholic nor studying philosophy in college gave me much guidance in the matter, and my ego isn't big enough to pretend that my grasp on truth is exclusive or correct or even all that firm. As a result, I'm often far too gullible ("Forty miles to the gallon? Why, sir, that is a good deal!") and not a little confused. Recently, however, I happened upon a computer program that said it could help me -- said it could, right out of the box, pin the truth down to measurable quantities, graph it out for me like a map, and announce its presence in a single, bold proclamation. Truth.

This program, Truster, doesn't tell you what's on the other side of the end of the universe or give you the answer to "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" But it does claim to be able to sift through the more mundane of life's riddles and set apart those gems of veracity from the standard-issue bullshit.

On the computer screen, Truster looks like the control panel for a game like Doom or Quake. When you first fire it up, the words System Standby glow inside a black box at the top of the screen and a patchwork of lights and graphs sit motionless, waiting obediently to do their job. Click on "Start Test" with your mouse, maneuver your subject near the computer's external microphone (but not in view of the terminal) and begin your interrogation. The screen jumps to life.

Start out interviewing your subject with a few innocuous questions: "How's life?" and "Hot enough for you?" to let the machine get a read on the subject's demeanor. ("Calibrating," the black box informs you as it samples the interviewee's voice and determines his normal speech patterns.) Then the test begins in earnest. A "truth stress graph" traces steadily across the middle of the screen, charting a history of your victim's responses in peaks and dips. Just above, 11 dots light up from green to red at each statement, more green dots signaling more truth, more red revealing lies. And in that black box, after each statement, Truster issues its verdict in bold yellow letters: "False Statement," "Inaccuracy," "Avoidance" and -- once in a while, you hope -- "Truth." The whole time, a band of numbers across the top of the screen constantly quantifies the subject's present volume, excitement, stress and cognitive levels. A spiky sound wave scrolls by, giving a visual rendering of the subject's every word.

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"WHO CAN YOU TRUST?" ASKS THE TRUSTER USER guide. Was that car really never wrecked? Was your spouse actually working late last Tuesday? Is the check truly in the mail? If you really need to know, Truster ("Your Personal Truth Verifier") can tell you. Truster is a CVSA, "a computerized voice stress analyzer." Originally developed for an Israeli software company to screen potential terrorists at the Israeli border, it is now sold by Valencia Entertainment to U.S. consumers.

Professional CVSAs have been around for decades, used in place of or in tandem with the polygraph machine by many police forces and government agencies. But you can't bop down to Fry's or CompUSA and pick one up, and unlike Truster, they don't retail for $179.95. Professional CVSAs are run by professionals, interrogators with weeks of training who can decipher the lines and waves and squiggles those units spit out. With Truster all you need is a PC, a phone and a well-developed sense of paranoia. The program does the rest.

Truster works by sensing four distinct sound levels in the human voice, running them through "a highly sophisticated algorithm," and returning a judgment about the veracity of what was said. The theory behind all this is that the human voice produces certain characteristic sound patterns in a normal conversation and very different sound patterns under the stress of telling a lie. These "microtremors," too subtle for the human ear to detect, can only be interpreted by a machine.

But Truster only works if the person you suspect of lying doesn't know he's being tested. That shouldn't pose a problem in a phone interview -- the program comes with an adapter to run your telephone into your computer -- but even with the external microphone, Truster is designed to work only on "a free conversation, with no â predefined purpose," where the need to tell a lie will come as a surprise to the subject. In other words, you must "Truster" your subject behind his back.

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