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The Finance Ministry is promoting a program to introduce artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technology to help customs agents crack down on increased smuggling of illegal drugs.

The program aims to establish the world's most advanced inspection capabilities according to a plan announced by the ministry in June last year.

As part of the program, AI-based analysis will be used to sort through huge amounts of data on past cases of unlawful import activity, looking for patterns of false descriptions on such matters as price, quantity and weight of goods on import declarations. The information will help pin down importers who should be watched more closely.

To prevent the importing of illegal drugs, the ministry has already started testing a prototype nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR) device that uses AI to check X-rayed items and identify possible drug smuggling.

The NQR device sends a pulse via radio waves and can detect drugs hidden in body cavities.

At present, drugs hidden in such a manner can only be confirmed using X-ray machines at hospitals. No country has yet adopted the technique to find illegal drugs.

While customs procedures have mainly relied on experience and hunches by inspectors, AI, using big data analysis, and the NQR technique will replace the agents, reducing the time needed for processing.

The Finance Ministry plans to put the two systems to practical use by fiscal 2022. A senior official with the Japanese customs service, which belongs to the ministry, said, "We will aggressively advance the introduction of whatever is possible."

The systems will also help protect customs officials from the novel coronavirus as they will no longer need to make physical contact with suspects, the official said.

In particular, the ministry hopes to introduce the NQR device in time for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

The ministry will also make customs clearance procedures friendlier for people entering the country. While the use of a smartphone app to declare alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and other items brought in from abroad is possible at Narita International Airport and five other such ports of entry, the ministry plans to install touch screen displays for declarations by people who do not have such an app.

The ministry, furthermore, intends to begin accepting tariff payments by credit card and smartphones at inspection sites.

"We have dealt with the increased arrival of visitors and goods from abroad over the past three decades," the Japan Customs official said. "As the conditions around us keep changing, we need to change ourselves to address them."

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