AVATAR lie detector: Future of lie detection happening right here in Arizona

PHOENIX - Imagine a lie detector that can analyze your every move from a distance: your voice, body temperature, stress levels and dozens of other twitches, quirks and cues undetectable with the naked eye.

Stop imagining.

The ABC15 Investigators have learned the technology is being tested here in Arizona right now.

"The future is going to be limitless," said Dr. Jay Nunamaker.

Nunamaker and a team of researchers from the University of Arizona have been working on the lie detection machine, called AVATAR, since 2000.

AVATAR is short for Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real Time.

It looks a lot like an ATM that has an extra screen with a face. But what you may not know – or see – is what's inside.

The machine comes equipped with three different cameras, motion detectors, lasers and voice stress analyzers.

All of that equipment allows the AVATAR to take about 50 different measurements simultaneously.

"(It gives) you an idea of where you're looking and how you're looking at it," said researcher Nathan Twyman. "We can also get a picture of your face for facial recognition."

The University of Arizona has developed this technology with millions of dollars in funds from the federal government, as well as other science-related grants.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security thinks this technology could help protect national security. Officials have tested the AVATAR twice last year on the U.S. / Mexico border at the Nogales port of entry.

"We automated a bunch of the questions for their trusted traveler program," Twyman said. "So when people want to get across the border in the fast lane, they will come for a background check."

The results of the test runs were not available, officials said.

But researchers said that the AVATAR was used to initially screen applicants, generating results for agents to review.

"It will give them a risk score," Twyman said. "So if a particular question throws up a red flag, it says ‘Hey, they were really hesitant about this question. Something about this question really threw them off.'"

But the tests are only the latest step in the AVATAR's development.

"We are nowhere near being finished," Nunamaker said.

Nunamaker's team is working on programing the avatar so it can connect to law enforcement and other databases. They also want to make the AVATAR social media savvy, allowing it to search Facebook, Twitter and other sites at the same time it's asking you questions.

"You can use it to drill down," Nunamaker said. "You follow the trail like a detective."

They are also looking to add new cameras and devices.

"So now you can look at the pores on your face that activate when you lie," Nunamaker said. "And so the technology is just dramatically changing whether it's voice stress analyzers, thermal cameras, blink cameras. We don't know where it's going to go.

"And then talking with neurologists, they are trying to come up with ways to measure brain activity non-invasively, non-intrusively. And so that's our whole thing: it has to be non-invasive, non-intrusive," he said.

Non-invasive?

Not according to some privacy rights groups.

"I don't think any of us would like to live in a world where this sort of technology becomes prolific," said Ginger McCall, a director with the Electronic Information Privacy Center.

McCall said this type of technology can invade the public's privacy.

"I think most people would be uncomfortable with any type of machine that could do something akin to mind-reading," McCall said. "Just because something doesn't touch you doesn't mean that it's not invasive."

Researchers expect that this technology will eventually make its way into airports, consulates and other government buildings.

Even though some of this technology may seem years away, much of it is already being put into use.

"Insurance companies and banks are doing a limited amount of screen when they say, ‘this call may be recorded,'" Nunamaker said. "They are actually doing deception detecting."

Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below. ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing can be reached at dbiscobing@abc15.com .

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