Avatar Knows If You Are Lying

How do you know if someone is lying?

You usually don't. Research has shown that even professional law enforcement agents are very poor at recognizing liars, and scientists and engineers across the country are trying to give them a mechanical helpmate that can detect even tiny and incredibly brief clues that a person is less than truthful.

It's called "Avatar," not to be confused with the movie by the same name. Avatar looks like an "ATM on steroids," according to Doug Derrick, a researcher at the University of Arizona who is helping develop a machine that may someday ask what you really have in your bag. If it thinks you are lying, it will signal a real person to step in and pick up the interrogation because a twitch in a tiny facial muscle aroused suspicion.

At least that's what scores of researchers at 14 leading institutions across the country are hoping will happen. They are part of an ambitious multi-disciplinary effort to bring high technology to border patrols and airport screenings.

A consortium called "BORDERS," sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and headquartered at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is focusing attention on everything from bureaucracies to sophisticated sensors to move security into the 21st century.

Researchers Use Thermal Imaging, Brain Imaging to Detect Lying

Avatar is rapidly becoming the poster child of the program, although it is only one of many projects. It's a kiosk with a computer screen that will show an animated representation of a border agent, and it will ask a series of questions to see if there is any reason for concern about some chap trying to cross the border from Mexico or Canada.

The idea behind it has gained momentum as various labs have zeroed in on how the human face, or body, changes if a person is lying. For example, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., found that lying sends excessive blood flowing to certain areas of the face, and they could detect that about 80 percent of the time with thermal imaging technology.

Other researchers at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia used brain imaging equipment to show that parts of the brain light up when a person lies. Computer scientists at Rutgers University used sensors to identify certain body movements that indicate a person is lying. These are largely beyond our control.

300 Cues May Indicate Deceptio, Researcher Says

"There are about 300 different cues that people have identified that may indicate deception," Arizona's Derrick said in a telephone interview. "Our research is focused on trying to get 12 to 15 reliable cues that measure deception. A person may be able to control some of the cues, maybe three to five of them, but other cues will leak out no matter what the person does."

One tell-tale cue is dilation of the pupil. The researchers find that lying causes the pupil to dilate within about three seconds if you tell a lie.

"It's very quick, and very small, and it happens almost immediately," Derrick said. A human agent is not likely to detect that brief signal, but Avatar can. Of course, many things can cause the eye to dilate, even the setting sun, but in this case, the rapid dilation and quick resumption of normal size is a clear signature of lying. And that should be augmented by other cues, like a change in the pitch of the person's voice, or twitching of a particular facial muscle.

Avatar Alerts Border Patrol to Potential Liars

If that were to happen at a border checkpoint, Derrick said, Avatar would "wave a red flag" to alert a real agent that more careful screening of this particular subject might be a good idea. The goal is to assist agents, not replace them.

Lying while trying to enter the country with a bomb in your trunk is of course loaded with danger and anxiety. So the cues would probably be quite strong, but lab experiments show that Avatar can be tuned to be so sensitive that it can even pick out a liar who has no reason to worry.

Derrick and the principal investigator on the project, Arizona computer science professor Jay Nunamaker, took Avatar to Warsaw, Poland, to check its accuracy on seasoned border guards. Half the guards were told to construct fake bombs that "looked real," Derrick said, but had no explosives.

Avatar's sensitivity was turned way up, even at the risk of false positives, because the researchers wanted to be sure that no potential bomber escaped detection. It worked, although it also fingered a few truthful guards, but here's the significance of it: The guards who lied were in no jeopardy. They weren't going to jail, because they knew the bomb was a fake. It was just a game.

Will Avatar Work Outside the Lab?

But Avatar caught them lying just the same.

Sounds good, but is it really going to work in the real world?

"The results in the lab are really promising," Derrick said. "We've had very good success in our experiments, but that's in a controlled laboratory environment. It's not going to solve all your problems and cure what ails you, but we're optimistic that we have a potential to do something that would be good."

It may at least surpass the present generation of lie detectors that are vulnerable to manipulation by the operator and succeed only an estimated 50 percent of the time. Maybe a high tech mechanical gizmo can do something that few humans can do. Psychologists at the University of San Francisco tested more than 13,000 persons for their ability to detect deception. Most were not very good at it, but the researchers found 31 - out of 13,000 - who were "wizards," according to the researchers.

They were so good, in fact, that they detected "micro-expressions" that lasted only for a fraction of a second. The "wizards" have since assisted law enforcement agencies in training agents to recognize those uncontrollable twitches.

Someday, probably several years, according to Derrick, some thug with a bomb may have to fool both Avatar and a human wizard. It may take both to get the job done.