Avatars Seek the Truth

By Romi Carrell Wittman –

UA Professor Sees Future with Human-like Lie Detectors

Jay Nunamaker, a Regents Professor and Soldwedel Chair in Management Information Systems (MIS) at the University of Arizona, has devoted his long career to information – moving it, analyzing it, interpreting it, securing it.

Nunamaker is also the director of the Center for the Management of Information and the National Center for Border Security and Immigration (BORDERS) at the UA. His current work involves the development of virtual border agents equipped with high-tech devices to capture key details about people trying to enter the country. 

High-tech kiosks with avatars of cartoonish human faces greet travelers. The avatar asks the person in front of it a series of questions. Infrared cameras record eye movement and pupil dilation. A high-definition camera captures body movements like nodding, fidgeting and shrugging. A microphone captures voice data, like changes in pitch, volume and tone. These tells – dilated pupils, fidgeting, changes in vocal tone – are indicative of someone who is lying or trying to hide something. The avatar flags the questions where it identified these behaviors and alerts a human border agent that a more in-depth screening may be needed.

The goal of these virtual agents is to increase screening accuracy, as well as decrease wait times in customs. Nunamaker put it this way: “It off-loads the initial screening from border agents, freeing them up. It’s helping to make better decisions faster.” 

These virtual agents have been extensively tested in the European Union. Nunamaker believes the technology may one day be used in office settings to screen job applicants and perhaps even be deployed in the medical field to make patients more informed.

Q. What is the most pressing issue in information technology today?

A. Security breaches are the No. 1 thing that gets people fired. It’s the biggest risk, but not the biggest problem. The biggest problem for a CIO is balancing what developers can do versus what the stakeholders want versus what the board of directors will approve.

Cost overruns and late deliveries are a chronic problem in the industry and it stems from not outlining parameters clearly. People just want to talk about what they want, but it’s not specific enough for the design level. People want what they want, but then they don’t know what they want.

It’s like someone who is going shopping for a house: They want a 4,000-square-foot home, but can only afford a 400-square-foot home. It takes a very strong CIO to understand the technology and what can be accomplished with the resources available.

Q. How do you balance data security with accessibility?

A. I think that more emphasis needs to be placed on screening employees and hiring those that won’t harm the company. Security can’t be achieved through rules – as in, Employee X can only get into these files, while Employee Y can’t get into those files over there. It’s inefficient and it hinders people from doing their jobs. 

This is an area where technology like the virtual border agent can be used. Companies could have applicants answer a series of questions posed to them by the avatar. Employers are alerted to odd eye movements, voice changes or body language, which can be indicators that the person isn’t telling the truth or isn’t telling the whole story.

This technology could also be adapted for the medical field. It could brief you on an illness before you see your doctor. It’s not making a diagnosis – that’s something the doctor must do – but it will make you more informed before you see your doctor.

Q. What is the future of data?

A. For people in the tech industry, the focus should be on partnering with successful systems. Don’t build your own system. Don’t be the first – it’s always very costly.

Q. What advice would you give people who want to go into the tech field?

A. Get the best education you possibly can … and look at things from an engineering perspective. Don’t treat technology as a black box. You have to know how it works both at the high level and down to the nitty gritty. If you don’t understand how these things work, you won’t appreciate what’s involved.

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