Previous Article: Vooban Launches a Solution to Automate Quality Control for Manufacturing Plants
Next Article: When Humans Reach Their Limit, Machines Can Take Over

Jun 28, 2022

Facial recognition, friend or foe?

by Hugues Foltz Executive vice-president

Technology, Artificial intelligence

The holiday season that we have just gone through will certainly not have been easy. Indeed, the surge in coronavirus cases has forced many of us to reshuffle our plans, run to testing centres and question those around us about their every move.

Generally speaking, trying to trace the movements of people with COVID is a real headache. In order to facilitate the process, the government has set up digital tracing applications to locate our whereabouts and warn us of possible outbreaks. For these to be effective, however, everyone must use them diligently.

Wouldn't it be easier to leave this job to security cameras, which are already ubiquitous in our businesses, our public establishments and even our homes? Why not use them to scan the face of customers, accumulate data and then trace the precise itinerary of a person with the disease?
If you think such a surveillance system is only possible in dystopian novels like 1984, think again. Facial recognition is very much alive, and it continues to gain popularity all over the planet.

The idea of facial recognition is nothing new. Since 1960, many researchers have been refining its development. In recent years, artificial intelligence has opened a world of new possibilities in this field. As of today, several countries use it on a regular basis, often at airports and in law enforcement. Moreover, the use of biometrics is usually no longer a secret for those who own smart devices. With a simple scan of our face, it is now possible to unlock a phone, access a bank account or make purchases.
In Scotland, some schools have recently adopted this system to allow students to pay for meals in the cafeteria without credit cards or cash. This method, considered much faster and safer, remains voluntary. Of course, the news raised some eyebrows, for of all the advances in artificial intelligence, facial recognition is among those that spark the most debates. And it is not without reason: violation of privacy, profiling, identity theft and abuse of power are some of the issues that have led various countries around the world to limit or simply ban the use of this technology.
The example that often comes to mind is that of China with its “social credit” project, which would notably use facial recognition to monitor the movements, habits, purchases and behaviour of citizens. According to a predetermined point system, the actions taken by an individual could earn them additional benefits, or conversely, restrict their access to certain services. The project is not yet in its final form and contains many subtleties, but it remains an excellent overview of all the influence of technologies on our private lives.
We must also not forget Facebook, one of the pioneers in the field, which has an impressive database of more than a billion digitized faces, accumulated since the start of the project in 2010. This functionality, at first a simple tool to identify users in photos, quickly became an instrument of profiling and surveillance wrongly used by the authorities. The ethical question was so sensitive and the abuses so frequent that Facebook recently decided to deactivate its facial recognition function and delete all data relating to it. Whether this promise will actually be kept remains to be seen…
But facial recognition is not just a bad thing; on the contrary. Like fingerprints, a face is unique to everyone and helps to secure many aspects of our lives like never before. If the idea of being monitored by cameras is not particularly appealing, tell yourself that this same technology makes it possible to trace criminals, find missing persons and prevent crimes in record time. What's more, our face is an excellent indicator of our physical and mental health. Facial recognition is used in medicine to detect certain genetic diseases, assess a patient's emotions in real-time, measure pain levels and even prevent suicides.
A world where our actions are constantly watched and analyzed can seem dehumanizing, I agree. When our faces become digital data that can be exploited, we must question the measures taken to protect us. However, the purpose of this article is not to scare you, but rather to make you aware of the profoundly human aspect that accompanies all new technologies. More than ever, we are confronted with technological practices that are constantly gaining in efficiency and precision and from which no one is entirely immune. I can never repeat it enough: AI is a particularly powerful tool and it is essential to fully understand its mechanisms in order to be able to differentiate between malicious and judicious uses.
The more people are made aware of the ethical issues that surround the technological world of tomorrow, the more we will be able to focus our efforts on the great possibilities that artificial intelligence has in store for us!