BS Detector: Spotting Spin in Speeches
Speech- and image- analysis software can detect and quantify minute deviations from "normal" communication patterns. This being an election year, these tools have been pointed towards the television to have a look at two particular speakers... I wonder who.
Technology is here to help. Software programs that analyse a person's speech, voice or facial expressions are building upon the work of researchers like Ekman to help us discover when the truth is being stretched, and even by how much. "The important thing to recognise is that politicians aren't typically good at out-and-out lies, but they are very adept at dancing around the truth," says David Skillicorn, a mathematics and computer science researcher at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. "The 2008 election has so far given us plenty of chances to see them in action."
Skillicorn has been watching out for verbal "spin". He has developed an algorithm that evaluates word usage within the text of a conversation or speech to determine when a person "presents themselves or their content in a way that does not necessarily reflect what they know to be true".
Pollermann uses auditory analysis software to map seven parameters of a person's speech, including pitch modulation, volume and fluency, to create a voice profile. She then compares that profile with the speaker's facial expressions, using as a guide a set of facial expressions mapped out by Ekman, called the Facial Action Coding System, to develop an overall picture of how they express themselves.
"Technology is quickly catching up with psychology," says Pawan Sinha, who leads a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that specialises in computerised facial-recognition technology. "It's not quite there yet, because the visualisation systems just can't work fast enough to replace the human eye and mind. But computer processing is getting faster and our recognition systems are getting better," he says. "Someday soon, computers may be able read us better than any psychologist. I imagine that will be a pretty scary day for politicians."
Some mitigating factors: Political speeches are written by people other than the speaker, so there will be some degree of disconnect.
Also, campaigns are driven by larger factors than the candidates' speaking ability, as the past two elections show quite handily. Branding and "product positioning" are far more important in sound-bite-driven campaigns than the ability to convincingly put an argument together: straight talk or no, go on too much about in-depth economic reform and your viewers will click over to Hogan's Rules.
So can machines tell when you're blowing smoke? The short answer is "sometimes, kinda". What can I say, I just really wanted to use that headline.