Lie-Detecting Kiosk Wants to Ask You Some Questions

The unemotional, unflappable AVATAR asks the right kinds of questions at the right time to root out deception with remarkable accuracy.

Can you tell if a stranger is lying? If you said yes, I have news for you. Even experts trained in some of the best security protocols identify deceivers about 54 percent of the time. That's a little better than chance. This is distressing news for law enforcement officials, especially those tasked with rooting out criminals and smugglers trying to cross international borders.

But a lie-detecting kiosk, developed by Aaron Elkins, an assistant professor at San Diego State University, can find fibbers almost 90 percent of the time. Called the Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time, or AVATAR, the kiosk uses a suite of sensors and artificial intelligence to collect and analyze hundreds of different body cues and then create a risk assessment score that's passed along to an official nearby. The kiosk could greatly improve security at border crossings or airports while at the same tie speed up customs and immigration lines.

"It only takes a minute or so for the interaction," Elkins told Seeker.

To use the kiosk, a traveler approaches it, scans a form of identification, such as a passport or driver's license, and then answers questions presented by the virtual agent on the kiosk's screen. The questions begin innocuously enough to establish a baseline reading, Elkins said. What is your name? Where are you traveling to? Is this trip business or pleasure? How did you get your visa?

Unlike human security agents, though, the virtual agent maintains a level, nonthreatening, nonjudgmental voice that allows for a more consistent interaction. In field tests Elkins and his team conducted in Nogales, Mexico, in 2012, most of the volunteers that participated said they liked interacting with the machine better than a person, even those who are comfortable with technology.

"It's more like having a conversation than using a laptop," Elkins said.

As the traveler responds to the questions, several contactless sensors on the machine scan different parts of the body. For instance, a high-resolution camera analyzes facial expressions. A high-frequency microphones assess what a persons says and how they say it. An eye-tracking system detects gaze direction and pupil dilation.

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Elkins said that although contact sensors exist - think: clip-on finger sensors that pick up pulse and sweat - his team prefers not to use them.

"The second you start doing that, it changes the interaction dramatically," he said.

It slows down the process, makes it less natural and also shifts the power to the machine. People actually become more nervous and their voices go monotone, he said, making it difficult to detect deception.

Once the AVATAR has a baseline established, it asks some "indicator" questions, which Elkins didn't want to divulge, but said these kinds of questions are the type that may make a liar begin to feel uncomfortable. It adjusts its line of questioning in realtime as the session continues and it may ask the same question in a different way to analyze the response. In some cases, it may have the traveler look at an image, for example a photo of the person's passport, and then pair that with a question. Officials can also change the avatar from a male to a female and have it ask questions in the traveler's language.

The whole process takes just a minute or two and, at the end of the session, the AVATAR produces a risk assessment score that it shares with a security officer. If the score indicates deception, the officer may pull the traveler aside for more questions.

Elkins said that another advantage of the kiosk is that the line of questioning can be customized to correspond with immediate threats. For example, if a terrorist is on the run, the AVATAR can ask questions related to the suspect or the crime that may have been perpetrated.

Although the AVATAR has been through many field assignments to test its capabilities, including most recently an experiment with TSA at Reagan National airport in Washington, DC, it has to clear several regulatory hurdles before it could be used for air travel.

In the meantime, Elkins thinks the AVATAR has other uses that have nothing to do with finding liars, such as sifting through job applicants. The kiosk could be used to prescreen candidates for personality traits more suitable for one position over another. It could look for someone who is agreeable or confident, dominant or submissive, a leader or a follower.

"You can have the AVATAR act a certain way and see how the person reacts," he said.

It's likely that people would encounter the AVATAR in the private sector long before facing it at the airport.

"Awhile ago, I said it would be awhile," Elkins said. Until then, it's up to the humans.

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