Anyone who has ever travelled internationally knows the typical procedure when entering a country: have your passport ready, and be prepared to answer a few simple questions. That whole modus operandi may soon come with a new twist, however. Your first encounter in a new country could be with a robot, says San Diego State University.
Canadian Border Services are currently testing a new system called the Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real Time (AVATAR), which is essentially an artificial intelligence system that's capable of detecting lies.
"AVATAR is a kiosk, much like an airport check-in or grocery store self-checkout kiosk," said San Diego State University professor Aaron Elkins, who developed the project. "However, this kiosk has a face on the screen that asks questions of travelers and can detect changes in physiology and behavior during the interview. The system can detect changes in the eyes, voice, gestures and posture to determine potential risk. It can even tell when you're curling your toes."
A way to protect against human bias?
That might sound a bit creepy, like something out of a futuristic dystopian fiction, but developers hope that the system can eventually eliminate human error — and, perhaps more importantly, human bias — when it comes to border security. AVATAR doesn't make the ultimate decision about whether a particular traveler can enter the country, but it does provide a filter that can later be evaluated by a human agent if someone is acting suspiciously.
Of course, a system such as this isn't likely to stop at border security; AVATAR kiosks could serve myriad purposes.
"We've come to realize that this can be used not just for border security, but also for law enforcement, job interviews and other human resources applications as well," explained Elkins. "We continue to make improvements, such as analyzing the collected data using Big Data analysis techniques that make AVATAR a potentially valuable tool across many industries."
Using automated systems such as AVATAR for border security does raise some questions. What about privacy? Or foreign hacking? (Of course, human bias and error are good things to eliminate, but you can't hack a human.) But Elkins says the system has been rigorously tested in different environments, including laboratory settings, airports and border crossing stations from the U.S. into Canada.
The good news, at least in regards to AVATAR, is that the system is designed to be courteous. AVATAR bots are polite, responsive and bilingual. If you're not doing anything wrong, perhaps encountering a friendly robot at the border will be less stressful than a surly human agent.