In the 1960s a team of researchers in Palo Alto were commissioned to see if they could get computers to recognize faces. The research was paid for by an unnamed intelligence agency and, because of that, the results were sealed for years. While the rudimentary computers of the time struggled with things like turned heads and tilted necks, the researchers concluded that, yes, it was possible for computers to accurately recognize photographs of faces. After the study was concluded the work was continued at the Stanford Research Center where scientists were eventually able to program computers to be even better than humans at recognizing faces.
Since then a lot has happened. Computers are orders of magnitude more powerful than before, digital cameras record high quality images with ease, and many cameras even have 3D mapping technology. All of this has made facial recognition as commonplace as house keys. Few new mobile phones don’t have facial recognition capabilities at this point.
But as the technology has found adoption, there are still plenty of other ways that it could be used. One could be as a way to assist in policing. The ubiquity of cameras would make it hard for wanted criminals to move around public places. If enough cameras were being watched by police surveillance software, it would be able to catch thousands of criminals and deter countless more. There are obvious downsides to that. Corrupt police forces and oppressive regimes could use the technology to supercharge their unfair advantage over entire populations. Personal privacy would become a thing of the past.
There are plenty of good uses outside of law and order. Retailers could tailor physical ads like they do on the internet. Buildings could automatically adjust for the arrival of certain people, increasing lighting for the vision impaired or turning down music for someone with sensory overload problems for example. Offices could keep track of who was in meetings, who works best together, or who keeps reheating their smelly lunch in the microwave.
For now, though, it looks like none of those things will ever happen. For people to embrace what facial recognition can do for us we have to first come to terms with the possible invasions of privacy. As much as technologists insist that data can be anonymized and property stored, most people still have their doubts. And a few recent high profile uses of the technology have only cemented those reservations.
In December of last year, the famous entertainment venue Madison Square Garden came under fire for a practice of banning certain people from entering the premises. A mother chaperoning her daughter’s Girl Scout troop was escorted off of the Radio City Music Hall (also owned by MSG Entertainment) because of her previous involvement in a lawsuit against the ownership. These incidents have continued and have even caught the eye of lawmakers that want to make the practice illegal.
Banning someone on an “enemy list” from entering a building seems harmless enough but the damage it has really caused is to the future use of facial recognition technology. There is a growing sentiment on both edges of the political spectrum of governmental intrusion. Be it vaccines, 5G, or smart thermostats, a vocal minority is quick to denounce any technology that even resembles government overreach. I fear that the same will now happen to facial recognition. There are a lot of useful applications for facial recognition but all of them will have to overcome the fear that has been created about the technology thanks to a few nefarious uses of it.
Our world is now being filmed at all times by thousands of cameras. Here is a great map of all of the publicly accessible HD cameras in the world. My personal favorite is this amazing shot of a watering hole in the Namibian desert. Take a look to see which animal is enjoying a drink right now.
The big news out today is the proposed sale of Realtor.com by Rupert Murdoch’s infamous NewsCorp to the only slightly less infamous PropTech giant CoStar. Many were surprised that the FTC let CoStar buy Loopnet decades ago, this time around we will see if regulators are more keen to step in to avoid what could be an anticompetitive acquisition. (RIS Media)
WeWork has been struggling lately as it has failed to keep its promise of profitability so far this year. Now they are looking at new ways of generating revenue from their workspaces including connecting consumer brands with its members. (Digiday)
The European Union issued a statement warning of the possible threat to their financial system posed by a sharp, ongoing downturn in commercial real estate valuation. The recommendations include requiring banks with commercial lending exposure to set aside more capital to cover possible widespread defaults. (Reuters)