I found James L. Halperin’s 1996 novel “The Truth Machine” a curiously dull-yet-interesting read… an unusual combination.
The cover looked exciting and the tagline of “In the Year 2004 The Truth Will Be Told” promised ‘excitement, adventure and really wild things’… to misquote Douglas Adams.
Unfortunately Halperin chose to tell the story from the rather distant, largely third-person perspective of an AI system called ‘Intel 22g CP-TLMos’.
Although it might have seemed like an exciting idea in 1996 that an AI could be working alongside humans in a very natural way, and in this case as a kind of computerised journalist, by 2020 it felt emotionally bland. There is a great story contained within this book that could have been told from the perspective of any of the human characters – we would then have felt emotionally engaged with the tale instead of observing it from afar.
With all of that said as a massive warning that chunks of the book were like chewing my way through a stack of stale crackers, despite wanting to abandon it several times, there was something in it that made me want to see how it finished.
Spoiler zone: here comes the plot – as a result of his brother being murdered, an intellectually gifted yet socially deficient man called Randall Armstrong (autistic perhaps) decides to build a machine that will report whether people are telling the truth with 100% accuracy. Halperin follows the thread of how such a machine would affect human society quite deeply – just imagine if business people, politicians, everybody, had to be completely honest all of the time… everything would change.
The task of the building the Truth Machine is huge and Armstrong gets there except for a small 2% glitch that he eventually only covers by using plagiarised computer code from a competitor. He then has to build a loophole into his Truth Machine so that he can pass tests to say he has never broken the law in the future. Of course, other Truth Machines are eventually built that Armstrong can’t fool, and in the end he has to be held accountable for his crimes, which by then also include murder and perjury – he’s facing the death penalty at that point… what will happen? We actually come to quite like Armstrong, in a distant sort of way, but the sense of jeopardy from his trial at the end of the book remains dull.
Overall I found the Truth Machine interesting as an idea, but the execution of the story severely diminished the overall enjoyment of reading it. Scientists today are still trying to use remote-sensing to detect aberrant behaviours, and this book does give some insight into how the world might change if they ever succeed.