Todd Mickelsen has caught all four Utah members of the U.S. House of Representatives lying.
He’s also caught the undersecretary of the Department of Defense lying, and Mike Pence’s domestic policy adviser when Pence was vice president, in addition to numerous other senators, members of Congress, and officials with government agencies, including the FBI, National Security Agency and CIA.
So what’s his secret? Pry their fingernails off? Waterboarding? Truth serum?
He looks them in the eyes.
Or more exactly, a computer looks them in the eyes.
The system is called EyeDetect and it involves a computer program that can capture and decipher eye activity down to the millisecond.
Lying, it turns out, takes more effort than telling the truth. You have to think harder, causing your pupils to get larger. All this is detected microscopically in a 15-minute EyeDetect test created by the Lehi-based company Converus, of which Mickelsen is CEO.
To demonstrate that EyeDetect works — and to lobby support for the technology — Mickelsen has given hundreds of what he calls “the numbers test” to influencers in the federal government such as those listed above.
He asks the testee to pick a number between two and nine, write it down and not show it to anyone.
Then he turns on the computer and the EyeDetect program takes over, asking a series of questions. If the chosen number is, say, four, every time a question asks if four was written down the respondent must lie; for questions about every other number, he can tell the truth.
With a success rate above 90%, EyeDetect predicts the hidden number virtually every time.
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The technology behind EyeDetect can be traced back to a hike two University of Utah psychology professors took on Mount Rainier in 2001.
Besides being avid mountain climbers, John Kircher and David Raskin are two of the world’s most foremost experts on lie detection. It was their work in 1991 that created the computerized polygraph, the first significant improvement to the original polygraph machine invented way back in 1921.
But polygraph exams, via computer or otherwise, are unwieldy, requiring wires and blood pressure cuffs and at least 90 minutes for the test. As the two Ph.D.s were hiking, they mused about coming up with something that could detect lies faster and with less trouble — something computer based.
That led to a collaboration with Anne Cook, their colleague at the U., who was using an eye-tracking machine to conduct experiments on what the eyes could tell us about such things as memory and reading comprehension.
Two more University of Utah professors, Douglas Hacker and Dan Woltz, joined the effort, and between their combined brain power and a decade of research, the five of them came up with a cheaper and faster way of detecting lies by measuring cognitive change through the eyes, in contrast to the physiological change measured by the traditional polygraph machine.
In 2013, a group of investors acquired the rights to the technology from the university, brought the five professors on board as their science team, and started their company, Converus, to share this lie-detection breakthrough with the world.
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Almost 10 years later, Converus can be found in 60 countries, with more than 600 clients, ranging from police departments to therapy clinics to banks to law firms to any number of government agencies.
Here in the U.S., Converus has contracts with some 75 law enforcement agencies. Ten are in Utah, among them the sheriff’s offices in Utah, Davis and Cache counties and the Salt Lake City Police Department, where EyeDetect is used to screen new applicants. (According to Mickelsen, 32% of prospective cops fail on average, and 85% of the time it’s because they are not truthful about their past use of illegal drugs).
Because of strict privacy laws in the U.S., Converus does a big share of its business south of the border, in countries where corruption is a larger part of the culture and legal restraints aren’t as stringent.
Mickelsen cites the example of Acceso Credito, a Peruvian lending institution that deals primarily in car loans.
Since there is no credit bureau in Peru, the way Acceso Credito vetted prospective customers was by going to their homes, contacting their employers and conducting personal interviews to determine if they were a good risk for a loan — a laborious effort that took weeks.
The company eliminated this lengthy vetting process by placing EyeDetect laptops in 50 car dealers it does business with, requiring anyone applying for credit to first take a 15-minute eye test.
The result? “Three years ago, 30% of their folks were defaulting,” says Mickelsen. “Now it’s 5%.”
Then there’s the example of the Servicio de Administración Tributaria, Mexico’s equivalent of the IRS. For years, the agency’s auditors routinely took bribes. It was an open secret; just part of the culture. But that all changed when the agency secured the services of Converus.
“The agency came out and said (to its auditors), ‘We all know you’re taking bribes,’” says Mickelsen. “We’re not going to ask about the past. But as of June 1 everyone will be subjected to EyeDetect tests. That test will ask, ‘Since June 1 have you taken a bribe?’
“They cleaned it right up. Some people, when they were scheduled for their test, just didn’t show up.
“It became a deterrent. Statistics show that 70% of theft and corruption that occurs in business could be avoided if you just put in place deterrents like eye detection.”
Mickelsen’s hope is that in the future Converus will be able to do more work with federal agencies in the U.S., accounting for the many government officials he’s talked into taking his numbers test.
Mickelsen reports the politicians are routinely amazed when EyeDetect, like a magician with a card trick, correctly guesses their number. But this is no trick. This is their own pupils telling on them.
“It turns out the eyes,” he says, “really are the window to the soul.”