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Tuesday, Jul 16, 2024
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Robot Interrogator Could Change the Face of Security

Reporter Brad Graves is questioned by the Avatar. If the machine detects a problem, it can pass the person to a screening process conducted by a human being.

A business school professor at San Diego State University is working on a big change in how we’ll cross borders in the future. How big? So big, it might make the upcoming, 57-hour closure of the San Ysidro point of entry look puny in comparison.

Aaron Elkins is perfecting Avatar, a kiosk robot that can ask a traveler questions and evaluate the person’s reactions, including very subtle ones. With its various sensors trained on you, the system can reportedly peg a traveler who is acting as if he has something to hide. If the traveler raises suspicions, the machine can refer that traveler to a live border agent for secondary screening.

I got some face time with Avatar recently.

The face on the kiosk looks like an irritated Will Ferrell, without the curly hair. He wore a collared shirt and a tie (only the face, neck and a little bit of shoulders appear on the screen).

Without cracking a smile, he asked me for my first name.

Soon he was asking for the name of my high school, for the name of my high school principal, what I packed in my bag that day (even though I spent my day without a briefcase or even a lunch sack) and what I did just before I arrived for my interview. He also asked me if I went by any other name.

The interview was a little unnerving.

Three Cameras

Three cameras in the NCR Corp.-built kiosk, including one built to record depth, tracked the size of my pupils, where my eyes were fixed and whether my toes curled up. A microphone evaluated my voice.

To use Avatar at a border crossing, a person would first scan their government-issued ID card in the kiosk. Then Avatar would start asking questions. The technology has other possible applications at airports, military base entrances and prison entrances.

Elkins is an assistant professor and director of the artificial intelligence lab in the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State. His specialty is management information systems.

The local native, who did his undergraduate work at SDSU, has been developing the technology since 2007, when he embarked on his doctorate at the University of Arizona. He worked with some topnotch faculty in management information systems and communications, including Jay Nunamaker, who specializes in collaborative software, and Judy Burgoon, an expert in communications behavior. Both of them have strong interests in deception.

Lying and deception don’t occur in a vacuum, but in the give and take of two individuals, Elkins said.

Making Lying More Difficult

“It’s difficult to lie,” he said at another point. “We try to make it harder to lie.”

Avatar has recently worked at the airport in Bucharest, Romania and in Singapore.

There are patents pending on Avatar’s technology. Elkins said he is part of a company that is licensing the technology from the University of Arizona. The young company is still in the R&D stage and, as yet, it has no revenue.

Now that Elkins is on the faculty at San Diego State, future technology refinements will be the property of SDSU.

There are competitors in the kiosk space, Elkins said, but he added that such screening is “a really hard problem” to address.

The face is a very important component of the kiosk, Elkins said. People respond differently to a face than a disembodied voice coming from the kiosk. They treat the face as if it was human, and tend to relax when it disappears.

It’s easy to change the face, to make it a man or a woman, have it speak various languages, or make it smiling or unsmiling. (People tend to view an unsmiling woman avatar negatively, Elkins added.)

Standardizing the Process

At first he tried the sensor technology using human interviewers. Human interviewers, however, introduced so much variability to the process that the resulting data was “a mess,” the professor said. The machine makes the process more standard.

There is still a place for human beings at border crossings or at airport gates.

Computers are better suited to analyzing behavior, such as picking up minute changes in pupil size and vocal frequency, Elkins said.

A human interviewer is better than a machine at looking at a story and evaluating whether it is plausible.

Elkins plans to show off his technology at Decepticon 2017, the second international conference on deceptive behavior, set for Aug. 21-23 at Stanford University.

If his Avatar technology is deployed widely, Elkins said people will probably start finding ways to work around it. That would likely lead to more refinements, and more work-arounds. It could turn into a cat and mouse game.

Which might give people like Elkins jobs for life.

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