Andrew E. Kramer, "Russian A.T.M. With an Ear for the Truth", NYT 6/8/2011:
Russia’s biggest retail bank is testing a machine that the old K.G.B. might have loved, an A.T.M. with a built-in lie detector intended to prevent consumer credit fraud.
Consumers with no previous relationship with the bank could talk to the machine to apply for a credit card, with no human intervention required on the bank’s end.
The machine scans a passport, records fingerprints and takes a three-dimensional scan for facial recognition. And it uses voice-analysis software to help assess whether the person is truthfully answering questions that include “Are you employed?” and “At this moment, do you have any other outstanding loans?”
The voice-analysis system was developed by the Speech Technology Center, a company whose other big clients include the Federal Security Service — the Russian domestic intelligence agency descended from the Soviet K.G.B.
Dmitri V. Dyrmovsky, director of the center’s Moscow offices, said the new system was designed in part by sampling Russian law enforcement databases of recorded voices of people found to be lying during police interrogations.
I wrote about an earlier NYT story of the same sort almost seven years ago — "Analyzing voice stress", 7/2/2004:
Yesterday's NYT had an article on voice stress analyzers. As a phonetician — someone who studies the physics and physiology of speech — I've been amazed by this work for almost three decades. What amazes me is that research (of a sort) and commerce (at a low level) and law-enforcement applications (here and there) keep on keepin' on, decade after decade, in the absence of any algorithmically well defined, reproducible effect that an ordinary working speech researcher like me can go to the lab, implement and test.
Well, these days there's no need to go to the lab for this stuff — you just write and run some programs on your laptop. But that makes the whole thing all the more amazing, because after 50 years, it's still not clear what those programs should do. I'm not complaining that it's unclear whether the methods work — that's true too, but the real scandal is that it's still unclear what the methods are supposed to be.
Specifically, the laryngeal microtremors that these techniques depend on haven't ever been shown clearly to exist, as far as I know. No one has ever shown that if these microtremors exist, it's possible to measure them in the pitch of the voice, in a way that separates them from all the other phenomena that modulate the pitch at similar rates. And that's before we get to the question of how such undefined measurements might be related to truth-telling. Or not.
How can I make you see how amazing this is? Suppose that in 1957 some physiologist had hypothesized that cancer cells have different membrane potentials from normal cells — well, not different potentials, exactly, but a sort of a different mix of modulation frequencies in the variation of electrical potentials between the inside of the cell and the outside. And further suppose that some engineer cooked up a proprietary circuit to measure and display these alleged variations in "cellular stress" (to the eyes of a trained cellular stress expert, of course), and thereby to diagnose cancer, and started selling such devices to hospitals, and selling training courses in how to use them. And suppose that now, almost half a century later, there is still no documented, well-defined procedure for ordinary biomedical researchers to use to measure and quantify these alleged cell-membrane "tremors" — but companies are still making and selling devices using proprietary methods for diagnosing cancer by detecting "cellular stress" — computer systems now, of course — while well-intentioned hospital administrators and doctors are occasionally organizing little tests of the effectiveness of these devices. These tests sometimes work and sometimes don't, partly because the cellular stress displays need to be interpreted by trained experts, who are typically participating in a diagnostic team or at least given access to lots of other information about the patients being diagnosed.
This couldn't happen. If someone tried to sell cancer-detection devices on this basis, they'd get put in jail.
But as far as I can tell, this is essentially where we are with "voice stress analysis."
And seven years later, things haven't really changed. Of course, not all such systems claim to work on the basis of laryngeal micro-tremors — some explicitly say proudly that they *don't* use that method, which has gotten a bit of a reputation as snake oil. But neither do they cite a different method that's well enough specified for someone else to implement it and test it.
Today's NYT article describes the new Russian system in typically vague terms:
But the Speech Technology Center says even people who know about the voice-stress program would have trouble fooling it, because it measures involuntary nervous responses, the way a polygraph test does.
The center’s director, Mr. Dyrmovsky, said the voice-stress system analyzed vibrations as shaped by the contours of an individual’s throat, larynx and other tissue involved in speech. When a person becomes agitated, he said, involuntary nervous reactions alter these shapes, changing the tone and pacing of speech.
This is basically double-talk: to say that the system "analyze[s] vibration as shaped by the contours of an individual's throat, larynx and other tissues involved in speech" is just to say that the system analyzes speech. Of course, this quote is filtered through the reporter, Andrew Kramer, so the vacuity of the explanation is not necessarily the fault of Mr. Dyrmovsky.
This "voice-stress program" is not one of the products listed on the Speech Technology Center's English website, nor have I found any other clues to how their voice-based lie-detector actually works. Pending future revelations, I'm going to assume that the present is like the past, and that this is more of the same old same-old.
Some previous LL posts on speech-based lie detection:
"Analyzing voice stress", 7/2/2004
"Determining whether a lottery ticket will win, 99.999992849% of the time", 8/29/2004.
"KishKish BangBang", 1/17/2007
"Industrial bullshitters censor linguists", 4/30/2009 (see especially the comments threads, e.g. here, here, here, here.)
What I really want to know about the Speech Technology Center is whether any of its personnel did time doing speech research in the Marfino sharashka during the early 1950s, along with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who fictionalized his experiences as a sort of morality play in The First Circle, and Lev Kopelev, the original of Solzhenitsyn's Rubin, who wrote about it in his memoir Ease My Sorrows. Or, more likely, whether any of them were trained by Marfino veterans.