The Importance of Lying
October 17, 2018 - Monocle Research Department
In the pursuit of constructing artificial intelligence, it would clearly be an assumption on behalf of AI researchers and indeed the general public, that the qualities of intelligence would include rational thinking, problem solving and the ability to divine general truths from data and a series of facts. This would be true, for example, in the construction of an accurate historical description of what had led up to a particular event, such as the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Ironically, it may in fact be this very quality of veracity expected to be achieved from artificial intelligence that may make machine learning distinct from a very specific and important quality in human beings, and therefore make it impossible for machines to actually achieve true intelligence. That quality, unique to and inherent in humans, is the ability to lie.
The ability to lie, or to construct a fictional story, according to American cognitive scientist Elizabeth Loftus, is an important capability that is directly involved in the way we find meaning in a complex world. It is also integral to how we store this meaning in the form of reconstructive memory. And whilst this fictional construction of memories serves a positive role in the healthy mental functioning of the individual creating those memories, these “false memories”, as Loftus calls them, can in certain instances be detrimental in determining the course of someone else’s life – as was the case with the falsely accused Steve Titus.
In the early evening of 12 October 1980, on the desolate outskirts of Seattle, Washington, a teenage girl was raped. Upon being questioned by the police about the details of the incident, the young victim described the rapist as a twenty-something white male, about 6-foot tall with brown hair and a beard, wearing a light-coloured three-piece-suit, driving what she remembered as a dark blue car with vinyl-covered bucket seats and a temporary number plate beginning with either 776 or 667.
That same night, a young restaurant manager in the Seattle area, Steve Titus, was driving home after a romantic dinner with his fiancé. On the way back to his house, Titus was pulled over by the police and arrested. Unfortunately for Titus, the description of the rapist’s car given by the teenage girl slightly resembled the car he was driving that evening. What made the situation even more dire for Titus, was the fact that his car had temporary paper number plates, since he had bought the car not long before the incident. The final straw was that Steve Titus also rather closely matched the physical description of the perpetrator, being 5 foot 8 inches tall with brown hair and a beard. This left the police little choice but to arrest him based on these similarities.
When given a photo line-up of suspects, the victim pointed out Steve Titus, saying that he was the closest match to what she remembered. Months later in court, the victim claimed under oath that she was absolutely positive that Titus was the man who had raped her. But he was not. From the start, Titus’ arrest had been a miscarriage of justice. Whilst the rapist was described wearing a three-piece suit, Titus owned no suits. The car that the victim described and the tyre tracks observed by the police were those of a Honda Accord, but Titus drove a new Chevrolet Chevette. Furthermore, witnesses attested to the fact that Titus had been with family, friends and his fiancé for most of the day and night, making it impossible for him to have been near the scene of the crime at the time it was committed.
The case was rightly overturned and Titus only stayed in jail for one night, but the trauma would weigh heavily on him for years. Shortly after his release, Titus lost his job and broke up with his fiancé, who was disturbed by his extreme bitterness towards the authorities conducting the trial and struggled to cope with the negative turn his life had taken. Titus decided to dedicate his life to suing the state department for damages, but sadly died of a stress-related heart attack shortly before proceedings began, at just 35-years of age.
These types of cases that involve instances of mis-memory or false memories are the specialist domain of Elizabeth Loftus, who cites the Steve Titus example as just one of many times false memories have influenced the outcome of important events. According to Loftus, our memories are very fragile, to the extent that implanting false memories is far more easily achieved than one may think. In one such experiment, Loftus explains that when subjects were shown a video of a car crash, their answers when recalling the scene varied widely. This was especially true when the questions led the subjects to make logical leaps, asking one sample group, for example, “How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?” and then asking the other sample group, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” In the answers to the second question, the estimated speed rose by as much as 20% on average, simply by inserting one emotive word into the sentence – even though the subjects had watched precisely the same video.
For neuroscientist David Eagleman, this phenomenon makes for an interesting investigation into the brain’s function in retaining memories. According to Eagleman, this fallibility of memory is a result of the pressure the neural matrix is put under to hold onto old memories, whilst simultaneously having to constantly experience new external stimuli. The memory of an event, for example, requires different groupings of neurons to work together to compose the larger scene – where different groups of neurons retain different details. Yet, as time passes, each neural group, and indeed each neuron, must begin to multitask in the sense of building new memories as well as attempting to retain old ones. The enemy of memory then, as Eagleman puts it, is not time, but new memories fighting for space in the brain and gradually causing the vividness of the old memories to fade.
One way that we preserve these memories – both Eagleman and Loftus agree – is in the reconstruction of details into abstract stories, or even myth. Memories and their details, are thus, over time, cemented or refuted to form a mental narrative based on the supplementation of new experiences. As many scientists have found, this natural storytelling function of the brain is an important human trait, even if often premised on false memories that are empirically irreconcilable with objective observations. Recent studies have also shown that the ability of children to tell fictional stories, or even explicitly lie, is a strong indicator of healthy social development at an early age – where children who fail to display this trait often struggle to fit in socially and more frequently exhibit delinquent behaviour in the future.
One very influential thinker that has written extensively about the importance of lying, or more specifically, the importance of storytelling in relation to the way in which humans solve problems, is Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper – regarded by many as one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers of science. In one of his later books, Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem: In Defence of Interaction (1995), Popper describes how this storytelling ability of humans is an integral part of what he calls the problem-solving schema. To extend the sphere of our knowledge and understanding, he explains, we as humans instinctively guess at a likely answer to difficult questions, although no empirical rationalisation can be given to support the statement at that time. From this point of assumption, it is then up to us, or those around us, to test the soundness of that story – eventually either proving or disproving the truth of the claim. Through this hypothetical solutioning, we can use our scattered memories and observations as a resource for forward-looking analysis, to predict a likely future outcome despite a lack of currently observable evidence for such a presumption.
When considering the possibilities or limits of artificial intelligence then, it is perhaps this ability to form a story, or to simply lie about the reality of our experiences, that sets us apart from our machine counterparts. For whilst humans and machines can both process the data or experiences inputted into our systems – machines often faring far better than ourselves at this task – we alone can purposely construct an unproven or even false analysis. The ability to lie is to find meaning in disparate facts, not only so that we are able to store these stories in our brains more effectively from a biological point of view, but also so that we are able to socially integrate and convey this new meaning to our fellow human beings. This quality is not currently a requirement of artificial intelligence, but it may prove to be one of AI’s most telling shortcomings when eventually attempting to measure up to the natural intelligence of the human brain.