UA Licenses Deception-Detecting AVATAR to Startup

Sept. 6, 2018

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The University of Arizona has licensed a deception detection technology developed in the Eller College of Management MIS program to local startup Discern Science International, Inc. The development of the technology, known as the Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time, or AVATAR, was led by Jay Nunamaker, Ph.D., Regents Professor and Soldwedel Professor, who also serves as President/CEO of the company.

Tech Launch Arizona, the office of the UA that commercializes inventions stemming from University research, worked to protect the intellectual property, and then collaborated with Nunamaker and collaborator David Mackstaller to license it to the new company.

Nunamaker originally conducted the research that lead to AVATAR’s creation at the UA Eller College of Management MIS program through the Borders Research Project. The Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, FRONTEX (EU) and Department of Homeland Security funded the work.

Many people collaborated with Nunamaker over many years to create the AVATAR – most notably Judee K. Burgoon, professor and director of human communication research for the UA Center for the Management of Information; Douglas C. Derrick, Ph.D., former graduate student in Nunamaker’s lab and now assistant professor of IT innovation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; and Aaron C. Elkins, Ph.D., former graduate student and now director of the artificial intelligence program San Diego State University California.

The AVATAR system works like this: As users answer interview questions posed to them by an interactive electronic interviewer, the system records facial expressions in high-definition video and at the same time its many sensors measure and record thousands of signals from the subject’s voice, body and eyes. All of this information is routed through a complex analytical algorithm and the results are produced almost instantly: green means the subject is clear to pass; yellow means there are some issues to be investigated; and red means there are serious issues that require deeper investigation.

“The AVATAR technology was developed for the most rigorous and difficult task of detecting deception at the border,” Nunamaker said. “It had to allow innocent people to quickly pass through the border, while simultaneously identifying those attempting deception – and do it all in about 30 seconds.”

While the initial applications have been around border security, the company’s plan is to commercialize the AVATAR technology across a broad range of fields.

Their past research has shown that the system is 70 to 92 percent accurate depending on the application. In comparison, many studies show that humans can catch deception only 54 percent of the time.

Like other types of artificial intelligence, the AVATAR can learn and will improve over time.

“We have designed studies to accelerate the AVATAR’S learning by engaging people who will be well compensated if they can fool the AVATAR,” Nunamaker said.

“I continue to be excited by the broad range of intellectual property related to the 4th industrial revolution being developed at UA,” said Doug Hockstad, assistant vice president for TLA. “The research being performed at MIS, and across campus, is presenting more and more opportunities for UA to have an impact on the world. We’re excited to be partnering with Jay and the Discern Sciences team to contribute to a more secure society.”

“We are already talking to TLA about licensing additional technology to package with the AVATAR,” said Nunamaker. “This way, we can continue to focus on our research knowing that we have processes and people who stand ready to help get our ideas out into the world where they can make our world a little safer.”

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