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Is society prepared to “draw the line” on the use of facial recognition systems?

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, Helena Calle

Facial recognition is entering everyday life at an accelerating pace and driving a global debate about whether the benefits warrant the potential intrusion of personal privacy and anonymity in public places. The Wall Street Journal reports that China alone has more than 170 million surveillance cameras with plans to install a further 450 million new cameras by 2020. The imagery from these systems is already being used to allow people to “pay with a face” for fast food, gain access to public transport, and help the police identify persons of interest.

The thought of such broad use of facial recognition technology in public spaces triggers fears of the rise of the surveillance society and the spectre of Big Brother watching our every move. However, as with so many modern day technologies, there could also be significant benefits to health, safety, and wellness if the appropriate privacy protocols can be put in place. A critical question here is how can we ensure the technology is used in service of humanity rather than to control it?

Our faces, our micro-expressions, subtle muscle movements, skin complexion, and perspiration can all be used as health pointers and behavioural indicators. They are also increasingly thought of as windows to one’s soul, revealing, for example, what makes our pulse race or a possible tendency to antisocial or deviant behaviour. Clearly, there are vast current and potential benefits to face recognition, such as processing passengers rapidly through airport security and boarding. Indeed, facial recognition technology is one of the few biometric methods that possess the merits of both high accuracy and low intrusiveness. The challenge for society is deciding where to draw the line on the use of facial recognition systems and how to ensure compliance with any legal or ethical expectations around the use of such data.

Below we outline four different applications of facial recognition technology and how they may evolve in the future to benefit or constrain society.

1. Health monitoring – Scientists have designed a computer model that accurately predicts some health issues based on the shape of a person’s face. Facial shape analysis has also been shown to detect markers of physiological health in individuals of different ethnicities. Machine learning is giving scientists a new way to interpret the subtle micro-facial movements. A multi-modal algorithm analyses facial expression based on 68 separate points on the face, including the eyebrows, eye corners, mouth, and nose. Another system can also track a person’s head position, the direction of that person’s gaze, and the person’s body orientation in real time. This level of detail can be surprisingly revealing; differentiating between a happy smile and an angry smile, for example, or a smile that’s triggered by a social situation rather than an actual emotion, which could potentially be important in identifying depression.

In other studies, machine learning has been deployed to train a computer to recognize people’s body fat, BMI, and blood pressure from the shape of their faces. Potentially, these developments could provide the opportunity for public facial recognition systems to email or send text alerts to the patient, suggesting they seek medical advice. They could one day be used to mobilize emergency health professionals to administer on-the-spot advice and care which could possibly prevent hospitalization.

2. Personality profiling – A controversial use of facial recognition technology seeks to characterize a person literally at first glance. Using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse facial biometrics, researchers now claim to be able to detect everything about a person—from intelligence to sexual orientation—simply by scanning the face. A major down-side of facial recognition technology is that it could help the powers that be to unjustly target individuals with relative ease. Aside from the invasion of privacy, could such a technology erode the exercise of free will in society?

One can easily see how these types of innovations could gain mainstream approval in many countries and cities, the question is what level of evidential proof of their infallibility will be required before they are put into service. For example, it would not be acceptable to use biometric detection to assess someone’s intelligence in order to determine their future job—or would it? Within a few decades, if widespread automation created a scarcity of jobs, might that justify dire measures to ensure the right candidates were chosen?

Such examples highlight one of the biggest issue around biometrics, namely who controls the technology? A recent art exhibit displayed portraits that were painted with features that defy AI facial recognition. Would the deliberate alteration of our facial features to defy biometric recognition be considered a subversive act in the future?

3. Mental wellbeing – With the rise of mental health issues across society, facial recognition could be used in bathroom mirrors to read human emotions. This development could become a new tool for mental health tracking and intervention. Findings from the field of cognitive psychology indicate that the ability to detect an emotion and name it accurately results in higher emotional intelligence. Emotion recognition also impacts the ability to process experiences and events, hence allows for better coping mechanisms in stressful or traumatic situations.

Tracking emotions over time is essential to detect mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or even bipolar disorder. Hence, bathroom mirrors that read facial expressions could help in monitoring a person’s changing emotions and state of mind.

The Superflux design studio developed an interactive software application that can read your emotions from a bathroom mirror in real time. Created for “The Future Starts Here” exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the device tracks the person´s face, gives you information about your emotions and presents sponsored content based on the information captured. Using facial recognition for retail purposes is one way of giving the general public access to this technology.

4. Comprehension assessment – The technology could rapidly reach the stage where it could make continuous assessments of how well someone understands what is being said or presented to them. In an individual conversation, our AI might notice that the other person isn’t taking in what we are saying. Using a micro-earpiece, the AI might whisper to us to slow down or change how we are presenting the information. Equally, it might detect boredom and encourage us to speed up or liven up what we are saying.

Such an application would prove valuable in a classroom, large auditorium or conference hall where the speaker couldn’t possibly gauge every single face in the room all the time. However, cameras could scan the audience on a continuous basis and provide continuous feedback to a presenter’s monitor that gave an overall sense of the level of comprehension in the room and also highlight hotspots where clusters of people were either struggling or wanting the paced to be increased.

This article was published in FutureScapes. To subscribe, click here.

Image: by geralt


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