This Video Game Could Improve Airport Security

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 4 2013 4:55 PM

This Video Game Could Improve Airport Security

71623470
The game Airport Scanner may give clues about real-life screeners.

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A half-empty water bottle, a bottle of shampoo, a pocketknife keychain—baggage screeners see these items every day. But after spotting so many minor infractions, most of them accidents and nearly none of them a threat to national security, do TSA screeners become desensitized to rarer and more dangerous items? According to data pulled from a popular video game, the answer may be yes.

You may already know the game Airport Scanner, a smartphone app that lets you X-ray virtual luggage for contraband. But Airport Scanner is more than a chaotic and endless array of upgrades and high scores. Beneath it all, researchers at Duke University saw a massive data set containing valuable clues as to how visual recognition works.

Advertisement

In the game, players become accustomed to flagging luggage that contains anything from the TSA’s prohibited items list. This includes everything from the seemingly innocuous (wine bottles) to the obviously dangerous (crossbows). However, some items appear more frequently than others, and analysis of the data showed that while gamers got quite efficient at identifying the more usual threats, the identification rates plummeted when it came to tagging the ultra-rare-items.

This has obvious implications for the industry on which the game is based. We’re always reading about how people try to sneak totally insane things through airport security, but how often does each screener have to I.D. an explosive cannonball? Not all that often, and if data from the game is any indicator, this represents a blind spot.

The study is also interesting on another level. If you’re going to run tests based on rarity of items, then you need to show participants a massive number of images before you’ll have any real clue as to how they react to ultra-rarity. But thanks to the standard Apple User Agreement and some generosity on the part of the Kedlin Co., the research team was able to work with data from 20 million virtual suitcases generated from Airport Scanner—and that was just between December 2012 and March 2013. Over the last year, the team has gained access to 1.5 billion trials.

“This is the first visual search experiment to include targets so rare they parallel actual cancer rates,” said Adam Biggs, one of the paper’s authors. “It’s a mammoth amount of data.”

Interestingly, this silly little video game may already be helping make our airports safer. Biggs and his colleagues work closely with the TSA and have conducted research to determine what kind of cognitive differences there might be between the searches of a trained professional and the kid killing time on his iPhone.

However, as to whether the TSA has implemented anything specifically based on his research, Biggs laughed and said, “Nothing that I’m positive I can talk about.”

On a personal note, I can tell you that after playing a few rounds of Airport Scanner, I will approach the slowly-moving security line with newfound patience—because that kind of pressure is enough to give a person an anxiety attack.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.