TOKYO -- The Japanese ministry overseeing customs will begin field tests of artificial intelligence and drones in fiscal 2017 to help cut down on smuggling, aiming to fully introduce such technology ahead of the 2020 Olympics here.
Customs inspections at airports and harbors now employ visual checks of X-ray photographs to spot such contraband as illegal drugs and explosives. The Ministry of Finance will introduce AI to supplement visual screenings.
Image data accumulated so far will be read by AI to help expose contraband in X-ray images. Data acquired in customs when visitors arrive in and depart from Japan, and when cargo is exported or imported, will also be analyzed to determine when the probability of smuggling is high.
The spread of low-cost carriers has seen a surge in late-night and early-morning flights, especially from Asia. The new technology could help speed up inspections even when few agents are on the job, enabling visitors to Japan to enter smoothly.
Even as visitors have tripled in the past decade, the number of customs agents has risen just 6%. Finance Minister Taro Aso indicated last November that automation would compensate for the lack of personnel and suggested that introducing cutting-edge technology would be prioritized.
The ministry will also deploy unmanned aircraft to bolster surveillance for smuggling near harbors. Camera-equipped drones are envisioned circling the skies over the coast, reducing costs and increasing mobility compared with the current approach of using surveillance vessels.
Smuggling of illegal drugs and gold is on the rise amid the customs personnel shortage, raising fears of proceeds being funneled to terrorist organizations. Drones could help strengthen the customs surveillance regime.
AI and other leading-edge technologies are also spreading abroad. The U.S. is introducing an AI-based immigration-screening system and developing unmanned equipment. Brazil introduced a facial recognition system for customs at last summer's Rio Olympics.