In December 2017, the BBC journalist John Sudworth visited China to write a documentary about their development of surveillance systems.1 There are an estimated 170 million surveillance cameras in China, that constantly monitor what is happening in the public space. With smart algorithms they can not only determine the gender and age of people but also their identities. They keep track of what car you own, who you hang out with, and can track an individual person’s movements over the past week. The BBC’s journalist decided to test the system. The police entered a photograph of him into the system and reported him as wanted. He then walked around the city of Guiyang. In only seven minutes a couple of police came and arrested him.
The fact is that with this system China identifies and captures thousands of wanted criminals. One of these was attending a concert with 50,000 other people in the audience when the police came forward and tapped him on the shoulder. If we ignore the integrity-related downsides, this example illustrates very well how phenomenal computers are getting at facial recognition. Facebook’s algorithm for determining if it is the same person in two photographs has an error margin of 2.7 percent, which can be compared to that of humans which is 2.5 percent. It is probable that in the future we will see a range of facial recognition applications.
It is already becoming increasingly common to identify one’s self using one’s face instead of a boarding pass when boarding an airplane – a system that has been used by Lufthansa at the Los Angeles airport, amongst others. When one walks forward to the self-boarding gate the passenger’s face is analyzed and then matched to their passport picture. If the face is recognized the doors open and the passenger can board.
Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. They will know what makes you laugh, what makes you sad, and what makes you angry. | Yuval Noah Harari, historian and writer
It is not a Mayor leap to begin using facial recognition for improving customer relations. The airline Virgin Atlantic has experimented with a solution where they can identify first class passengers to offer them personalized service. Based on every passenger’s individual preferences, the personnel know if they should serve champagne or orange juice, if the food should be gluten free or if they are allergic to nuts. They can greet every passenger by name and offer adapted flight information and local weather reports from their home town. The entire purpose is for the customer to feel personally taken care of.
It is probable that our faces will be used to a greater degree for logging in and for adapting different services coupled to our personal profiles. For example, the bank HSBC allows business customers to open a bank account just by taking a selfie. It is also becoming more common for companies to allow logins via facial recognition, something that the auditing company KPMG and the gaming company Betfair, for example, offer their customers.
Perhaps you remember the science-fiction film “Minority Report” from 2002, where Tom Cruise’s character wanders down a street and is bombarded with personalized advertising: everything from new cars to alcohol. This is now nearly reality for those who visit Tesco’s gas stations in England. Using facial recognition, cameras at the entrance can determine the gender and age of the customer, and then adapt advertising films and displays that are placed in the store. The content also changes based on the weather and the time of day. One can always turn off undesired advertising messages on one’s cellphone, but you can’t turn off your face.
The company Affectiva has analyzed over seven million faces and analyzed the relationship between facial expression and feelings. Using their system, one can find out how a given person experiences, for example, an advertising film or a presentation. Or why not analyze how a potential customer experiences what is presented during a sales meeting? Does the customer react with curiosity, distaste or delight at what is being presented?
There is an integrity aspect coupled to this question, which of course must be outweighed by increased customer benefit. There are initiatives like Stop Data Mining Me, that work to reduce surveillance and the collection of data. They work with both awareness raising and to help those who experience discomfort to get their information erased from systems. At the same time, it is highly likely that with time many will resign themselves to and accept their visual mapping. Perhaps the data company Sun’s founder, Scott McNealy, will be found right when he said, “You have no privacy. Get over it.”
At the same time, facial recognition doesn’t have to be equated with personal identification. Many future camera applications can be based instead on general parameters like age and gender. Or why not mood and feelings? At the standup comedy club Teatreneu in Barcelona there are cameras in front of every chair. Entry is free, but every time you laugh it costs the equivalent of 30 US cents. They call this innovative solution “Pay per laugh,” which in one way provides a fairer pricing of the value that is created.
1 BBC News (2017). In Your Face: China’s all-seeing state. [video].
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