Imagine you decide to take a casual trip to Mexico, walking across the border for a day of shopping or even cheap dental care that’s not available in the United States. Upon your return, an officer from Customs and Border Protection directs you to a kiosk that looks like an ATM.
You’re instructed to press start and answer any question the machine asks. A cartoon-looking face, or avatar, appears onscreen and begins making queries in a polite, automated voice.
Are you carrying anything destructive in your bag? Has anyone given you contraband to bring into the United States? What should happen to someone who does smuggle contraband?
This Max Headroom interrogation sounds far-fetched, but just such an experiment is occurring on the border in Nogales, Ariz., using a variation of technology the Department of Homeland Security has been pursuing for years.
The avatar records the answers and forwards them to a tablet handled by one of the blue-uniformed officers. They see not just what you said but how you said it, along with a green, yellow or red “risk color,” based on your responses. Maybe you spoke faster, louder and with a higher pitch than normal for most people. Maybe you hesitated when you answered.
It’s sort of like a lie-detector test – except the government dislikes calling it that.
“We instruct the officers that nowhere is deception ever indicated,” says Aaron Elkins, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona involved with the project. “But it gives them some of that feedback, things they would have observed if they had done the interview themselves.”
For now, the kiosk is being tested with applicants seeking “trusted traveler” status; these are people who agree to a background check in exchange for avoiding long daily waits at the border.
But the future could hold something different: a cluster of high-tech monitoring devices, such as special infrared cameras and microphones, attached to the ATM-like machines. As you answer the avatar’s questions, the devices assess an array of physiological reactions, including body temperature, facial expressions, the tempo and frequency of your voice, breathing patterns and more.
The technology is part of a field of research known as “credibility assessment” that seeks to capture physiological cues we give off emotionally and cognitively: the facial temperature of someone carrying false papers, the anxious posturing of a drug courier, the racing heart of a would-be terrorist.