The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is testing an advanced technology whereby an "avatar" agent interviews certain Mexican visitors when they cross the border at one checkpoint in Arizona, a program that - if successful - could be implemented throughout the country.
People who enter the country at the Nogales, Arizona, border crossing point have the chance to be "interviewed" by a virtual multilingual agent with black hair wearing a white shirt and black tie.
The virtual agent interviews people enrolling in the "Trusted Traveler" program, which allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers to be fast-tracked through security.
To become part of this program, applicants must pass a meticulous review of their identity documentation and criminal record.
Those who are accepted can be interviewed by the Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time, or AVATAR, which was designed by scientists and researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The virtual agent interviews the applicants at a kiosk, very similar to an ATM, and can ask questions in English, Spanish or Russian.
Although not classified as a lie detector, AVATAR can indicate to human authorities if abnormalities exist in the applicants' answers such as long pauses or changes in tone of voice.
"The avatar does not analyze the responses themselves, but rather how these responses sound, the voice changes," Mark Grimes, one of researchers at the UA Center for Excellence in Science and Technology working on the project, told Efe.
The idea, he said, is for the virtual agent to undertake approximately 1,000 interviews while it is being tested at the Dennis DeConcini Port in Nogales.
"So far, we've had a very positive response. Several agents are working very closely with AVATAR. This technology definitely cannot replace a (live) agent, but it certainly can be of great assistance in doing a more efficient job," said Grimes.
He added that the applicants who have been interviewed by the virtual agent to date have expressed satisfaction with the procedure, saying that it goes much faster than it otherwise might.
"I think that it's like an ATM machine. Twenty years ago many people expressed confusion or fear of using one. Now it's difficult for us to survive without one of them," said the researcher.
The virtual agent is an authority figure, but it doesn't seem to intimidate the travelers.
The pilot program will be under way for the next few months in Nogales. When this phase comes to an end, the virtual agent will be taken back to UA, where the information gathered will be analyzed, including what questions people had more trouble answering.
The main aim is for this type of virtual agent to be able to be used in the future at other U.S. border crossing points and airports. EFE