Facial recognition gets interesting — and useful

Catching criminals, waking up a sleepy driver, stopping teens from buying cigarettes — facial recognition can help us accomplish all that and more.

Facial recognition technology is a powerful tool that can be used for good or evil. In this post, we present 10 positive aims fulfilled with the help of this technology.  N.B: Whilst this is mainly US data, the findings present equally well for a UK audience.

1. Catch criminals

Regardless of how severe their offense, everyone booked into the jail in Hennepin County, Minnesota, must provide their faceprint. The facial recognition system, implemented this year, has been used about 80 times — with 32 hits. A similar system is used in Los Angeles and other counties around the United States.

2. Understand who is entering the country

Since 2004, the US Department of State has been amassing a database of portraits, which now includes 75 million photos. By 2018, this data will be used for issuing visas — to protect the country from terrorists and criminals.

The FBI checks more than 412 million photos for similar purposes. Its database includes images from drivers’ licenses, visa and passport centers, prisons, and other institutions from all over America.

3. Ferret out digital ID thieves

Since 2008, the Department of Motor Vehicles has used face recognition to find criminals who steal other people’s identities so that they can get driver’s licenses. Using a similar system for two years, Indiana halved this kind of fraud.

4. Find lost people

Have you heard of the Helping Faceless project? Powered by Ericsson, the project’s aim is to bring lost children back to their families and stop child trafficking.

Here is how it works: Adults use a special app to take several photos of kids begging for money on the street. The photos are automatically uploaded to the project’s servers, where the facial recognition system tries to match them with photos already stored on the server. The data is also shared with validated NGOs who can help these kids.

5. Wake up a sleepy driver

Have you ever seen enormous haul trucks, such as the Caterpillar trucks used in mining operations? They’re so big that they can easily flatten a passenger car — while the driver feels only a small bump. Imagine dozing off at the wheel of such a monster!

These giants work 24/7, and some drivers work overnight shifts, which increases the risk of fatigue-related accidents. To address the problem,Caterpillar turned to face recognition.

A special program measures signs of fatigue, such as driver’s eye closure and head position. If the software registers any bad signs it sounds an alarm in the truck and sends a video clip of the driver to Caterpillar’s 24-hour sleep fatigue center. If necessary, a safety advisor will send a tired driver to take a nap or to visit a doctor to treat sleep disorder. This software will be installed in thousands of vehicles all around the world.

6. Help prosopagnosiacs

For humans, facial recognition is not a reflex but an acquired skill. We learn how to distinguish one person from another in infanthood, and not all people take to the task equally well. In fact, there is a cognitive disorder — prosopagnosia — which causes people not to be able to recognize familiar faces (including their own or the faces of close relatives).

Progress in facial recognition systems is making it easier to help patients suffering from this disorder. A wearable device (like smart glasses) can use facial recognition to log a diary of everybody a person communicates with and to display the name and a brief history of the acquaintance.

7. Protect problem gamblers

In 2011, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation decided to help problem gamblers who needed help resisting the temptation of Ottawa’s only gambling center, the Rideau Carleton Raceway.

The software compares its video records, taken 24 hours a day at the raceway, with the database of people who asked the province to stop them from gambling. When the system finds a match, it alerts the security team, which then discreetly approaches the gamblers and escorts them off the property.

8. Stop underage teens from buying cigarettes and alcohol

In 2007, Japan tried to use facial recognition technology to stop minors from buying cigarettes from vending machines. With the help of a built-in camera, machines analyzed a range of features, including number of wrinkles, bone structure, and how the skin sits on the face, to distinguish teens from adults and block underage buyers.

Younger buyers quickly determined they could use photos of adults to bypass the system. A year later, British retail chain Budgens implemented a similar system in one of its supermarkets to spot children buying alcohol. Lacking follow-up reports, we have to assume the pilot was unsuccessful.

It’s been 10 years, however, and in 2016 a great number of technological downsides have disappeared. For example, at Mobile World Congress 2016, MasterCard presented a new selfie identification system that cannot be fooled by a common photo — at least that’s what they say. As the technology continues to advance, face recognition will get new chances to solve such problems. Nonetheless, it is still technology under development, so we cannot yet say how reliable it really is.

9. Greet regular customers

A facial recognition system is a high-maintenance item, requiring software together with a set of quality cameras, servers, and other infrastructure. But from year to year it’s becoming cheaper and cheaper. Marketing specialists promise that we’ll soon see such solutions in cafés, hotels, amusement parks, and other public places.

Some hotels have already begun investigating how facial recognition works. For example, two years ago, the Universal Studios Japan hotel (Osaka, Japan) implemented such a system. It notified patrolling security guards that a known shoplifter had entered their complex — or informed lobby staff that a repeat customer was approaching.

10. Organize photos

Finally, the most widespread way to use this technology: Apple, Google, and even Facebook use their own face recognition systems to distinguish a portrait from a landscape, find a user in photo, and sort images by categories.

All of the above is just a sampling of the good that facial recognition technology can do. The quicker the progress, the more amazing and interesting our world becomes. The technology can also enable some rather scary scenarios, however. Stay tuned to learn about what happens when facial recognition is used for malevolent purposes.