NOGALES, Sonora - With his black tie, dark hair and light blue eyes, a dapper new agent is one of U.S. Customs' latest tools in screening border crossers

But this handsome, if ethnically ambiguous fellow, who started work Tuesday at the Dennis DeConcini Port in Nogales, is less - and more - than human. He is a virtual agent, an android and a kiosk all rolled into one.

Created by scientists and researchers from the University of Arizona, the artificial agent is called an AVATAR (short for Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time). His job is to screen border crossers without prejudice or bias while freeing human agents to address more pressing matters, said Aaron Elkins, one of the scientists who developed the AVATAR.

Researchers with the Department of Homeland Security science bureau and the UA's Technology Center for Excellence are working with Tucson's U.S. Customs and Border Protection field office to test it.

The AVATAR conducts interviews in English and Spanish, posing objective questions regarding applications for enrollment in the "Trusted Travelers Program," which aims to expedite crossing for pre-approved, low-risk frequent travelers. Once enrolled, those in the program can enter the U.S through speed lanes and kiosks.

To qualify, crossers must undergo background checks that include running their names or other information through criminal, terrorist, immigration and even agriculture databases. The AVATAR screens applicants for the program, and though it is not a lie detector and cannot deduce interviewees' intentions, it is programmed to detect anomalies - through vocal inflections or awkward answers.

"Those who are flagged by the AVATAR go through a more careful interview process with a human field agent," said Victor L. Brabble, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

On Thursday night, as pedestrians waited in line at the DeConcini Nogales crossing, the AVATAR was nowhere to be seen by the general public. Instead, it awaited interviewees with appointments in a separate office.

Objective approach

The AVATAR is no cold, impersonal, Brave New World robot out to get border crossers or discriminate based on race or ethnicity, said Elkins, a UA postdoctoral researcher in the management information systems department.

The kiosk is specifically designed to be objective, he said.

"It does not include any information about race. Everything is based on the sensor data. If anything, you couldn't become more objective in terms of assessing behavior," said Elkins proudly. "It won't treat a woman differently than a man. It won't treat you, because you may seem of Mexican descent, different because you may seem to be from Europe."

The cutting-edge technology used in the AVATAR actually dates to the 1970s, said Elkins. It was culled from extensive work and decades of research in fields ranging from psychology to engineering, and includes work from pioneers of collaborative systems.

In the '90s, researchers worked together to ask themselves how they could develop systems to validate what people said in electronic forms, incorporating studies of facial expressions and other human behaviors, Elkins said.

Elkins joined the effort as a student in the latter part of the last decade. For years, the UA group has been developing software that analyzes vocal and written response to questions.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), one of the stakeholders in the project, contacted Elkins late last November to see if the team could test the AVATAR in the Nogales port to help with a backlog of Trusted Travelers Program candidates.

Ideal testing site

The Nogales border was an ideal testing ground for the AVATAR, CBP officials told the researchers, since users would have appointments and the interviewees would expect to be questioned, Elkins recalled.

With humans in charge, the application process for the Trusted Travelers program can be methodical and slow, Elkins said. A three-officer team conducts interviews, and a wrong answer, lack of information or a bureaucratic misstep can delay action, he said.

Enter AVATAR.

"There are a lot of questions we thought that the AVATAR could ask to get out of the way as soon as possible, Elkins said. "The AVATAR is really trying to make it so that when you call in to apply for the program, instead of waiting two months, maybe you wait one week or two weeks."

A prototype of the AVATAR was tested at the Nogales border last winter. But researchers say the 2.0 version is an improvement, being able to speak Spanish - the first one spoke only English - and respond better to questions.

Researchers expect the AVATAR to conduct at least 1,000 interviews during the current pilot phase.

In the future, the hope is that it can scan passports and other documents and perhaps use other technology like sensors, video analyzers, eye trackers, and thermal and infrared cameras.

In the end, the researchers envision AVATAR not as a Big Brother that decides who stays and who goes, but as a streamlined way to save time and effective tool for human agents.

"When you are in an airport and use those kiosks to get your ticket or to check in, you find it so invaluable to save you time that you don't see it as an imposition," he said. "We have no desire to make a system that creates artificial concern or stress. We want it to be just like a normal interaction."

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border

Joseph Treviño can be reached at jtrevino@azstarnet.com or at 807-8029.