TSA attendant observes X-ray scan of baggage in airport
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Could AI save us from TSA annoyances?

  • Justin Caffier

The surveillance state is a foregone conclusion, but at least you’ll be able to keep your shoes on when flying.

Whether you’re sauntering through TSA PreCheck to jetset around the globe in first class or merely hopping on the PJ for a quick cross-town jaunt, there’s no denying that air travel has never been easier, breezier, or comfier for those of means. For the rest of us in steerage, the flying experience has been an increasingly miserable affair since that one bad thing happened back in 2001. Despite no comparable terrorism incidents since—and the TSA providing no supporting data that their screening practices caused this outcome—airline passengers have been a captive audience for the federal agency’s costly kabuki theater for over two decades.

Though loathed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and a topic of annoyance universal enough to long be considered a comedy cliche, the hegemony of “TSA Realism” has never been seriously challenged. Perhaps the leaders who could so are wary of offering opponents easy layups about “killing jobs” or “making America less safe.” Or maybe they secretly appreciate the agency’s stealth dual role as both lightning rod for gripes about the coming dystopian surveillance state and off-ramp to it. Whatever the reasons for prior timidity, TSA haters might finally have a chance at seeing this costly and inefficient beast slain. Their champion: a little startup called Baggage AI.

Baggage AI’s luggage-scanning software ostensibly scans and analyzes x-ray exposed suitcase contents faster and more accurately than the humans currently doing the job. Once refined to the point where it could fully take the wheel, the AI should be able to stave off nearly all instances of screeners rifling through neatly folded linen pants.

The startup can’t take all the credit for potentially keeping future travelers’ dignity intact. They stand on the shoulders of many collaborative and open-source research endeavors between government and the private sector. So buckle up for lots of acronyms and initialisms as we dive further into how computers learned that the snow globe in your carry-on isn’t actually full of Tovex.

The challenge of allowing travelers to keep their laptops in bags and shoes and belts on was the impetus behind the Open Threat Assessment Platform (OTAP), which researchers at Sandia National Laboratories developed for the TSA. The Open Platform Software Library (OPSL) developed through OTAP allows x-ray manufacturers, programmers, and other partners in the aviation security sector to develop, share, and test potential security solutions.

One panopticonic breakthrough that found its way to this platform we feel comfortable nicknaming “the worst app store on the planet” came from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Their ReadAIHigh-Definition Passenger Imaging System biometric body-scanning software’s addition to the OPSL roster, when paired with Baggage AI’s threat-detecting skills, could pave the way for a return to a fully beshoed airport screening process.

Baggage AI is currently being live-tested at Pune International Airport, one of the eight airports in the country selected to run AI luggage screening trials. Dimensionless Technologies, the team behind the system at Pune, is using the time to fine-tune the AI’s accuracy for detecting true dangers and weed out false flags. But those fearing such an early field test stage means it will be years before U.S. travelers get to keep their belts on shouldn’t lose hope. Analysts are predicting the AI baggage scanning market will be worth $5.55 billion USD by 2030.

Whatever numbers Baggage AI’s putting up in Pune International, we’re willing to bet they surpass the 67 of 70 mock explosives and weapons Homeland Security snuck past the TSA in a 2015 surprise audit. So while it would be hubristic to dance on the TSA’s grave this early, it’s nonetheless reassuring to see so many things stacking up that seem ready to clip the agencies wings.