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K-State professor's research into cooperative, uncooperative facial expressions could help fight terrorism

By Keener A. Tippin II


Grumpy, sleepy, happy and bashful may sound like the names of some of the vertically-challenged mine workers from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," but to a Kansas State University professor, they also could be the facial expressions of potential terrorists guarding their plans.

Akira TokuhiroAkira Tokuhiro, a K-State associate professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, pictured at left, is combining two research areas, biometrics -- including facial expressions -- and robotics, to explore combating terrorism.

"There are about six or seven basic facial expressions, such as happy, sad and angry, that you find throughout the world," Tokuhiro said. "We have some preliminary results with a limited database of digitalized images of Japanese females making facial expressions that the software tool we've developed can recognize and identify as a happy or sad expression."

A natural extension of this would be to track small to large changes in the facial expression, Tokuhiro said.

"It's what you and I can already do," he said.

A different project involves using a robotic arm to look at reactor components that are radioactive but, under regulation, need to be inspected for wear. According to Tokuhiro, inspection is complicated when inspectors can't get close enough to the radioactive component to examine it. Instead, the idea is for the robotic arm to do most of the handling and inspection of the part.

According to Tokuhiro, the biometrics, combined with voice stress recognition technology, could come into play when questioning a potential suspect, since facial expressions, pupils and voice stress levels can change while someone is being interrogated. Tokuhiro said he hopes to link these detected changes to a measure of cooperativeness.

"One approach is to just look at and inspect the suitcase," Tokuhiro said. "But when you put the person with the suitcase, it makes the situation much more interesting. You could then ask the person, 'We've seen from our sensors that there is something in your suitcase. Do you have illicit materials to declare?' The biometrics may be able to assist in catching a suspect in a lie or in extracting information from the suspect."

In addition to homeland security issues, both of Tokuhiro's projects potentially have applications for use by law enforcement and transportation officials in training and field work.

"If you're a state trooper who has stopped somebody for a driving violation and then notice suspicious materials in the car, it may be within the officer's purview to ask the driver a few questions," Tokuhiro said. "In these types of situations, you really want to know whether a person is being cooperative or not. If not, you may need to ask more questions. Capturing the facial expression during these questions and processing these images may document the case."

Another application could lead to enhanced safety on highways and in the air by recognizing a driver or pilot who is tired or marginally intoxicated.

"You could install a camera on the dashboard with an onboard computer that indicates that the operator is tired or not as alert as they should be," Tokuhiro said.

The technology also could be used someday for telemedicine and job training by biometrically characterizing the state of health of a person remotely or to confirm understanding of training materials, he said.

"We're not too far away from being able to do these things," Tokuhiro said. "It's kind of scary but interesting to realize that we can digitally monitor human characteristics and behavior via information technology-based means."

Tokuhiro can be reached at 785-532-3428 or tokuhiro@k-state.edu


Summer 2006