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It’s Not Your Face, It’s Ours

Shanghai: Advertising Shanghai

After a few days in NYC back in China.

One of the reoccurring conversations in the US that I coming back to is near-time facial recognition in the palm of the hand and how the face is increasingly be used as a gateway to our online identity/ies.

Putting the considerable issue of personal privacy aside – when someone points a camera phone at your face and connects to something online – which company is going to be making the connection? And what will they connect to? To cut to the chase – who owns the rights to your face?

How we search inherently changes what we search for. Consider the differences for searches on a mobile device in the back of a taxi in a foreign city versus in a web browser on a big screen at home – the speed and cost of connectivity, input, the ability to scan results, conduct follow up searches. And so it will be with person-recognition in the palm of your hand.

Ever looked in the mirror at the end of the day and realised that the person you see before is way off from the image you wish to project to the world – dodgy looking hair, a shaving cut, smudged mascara, …, and wondered how long that’s been there? In a world of near time facial recognition what will you see when the face stares back at you? Discovering that someone has bought the rights to associate your face with beauty products or face cream for acne, an online shopping mall or a porn site (where your face will be delightfully superimposed on the object(s) of their sexual fantasy). How will what you see differ if you have an admirer, a stalker, you are bullied, or even the bully?

For a while people will want an awareness of how much it costs to place advertising next to their face – monitoring spikes and dips in cost depending on context – a popularity index of sorts. For most the novelty will wear off (especially once they figure how little they are worth) but for a certain demographic the cost of placing an advert next to their face will be part of their personal identity – much like the number of twitter followers or unique users is in the online world.

As facial recognition evolves so will our ability to create more nuanced variations on the search string – people will change their facial expressions, hair, makeup to redirect search queries to new, or nuanced destinations. Smiling for the camera will take on another, complimentary meaning.

The decision by the Dubai police to publish the (part disguised) faces of the apparent Mossad team that assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh – Hamas leader is fine piece of passive aggression in retaliation for a state sponsored hit. The easiest way to manipulate what comes back on a search is to redirect queries for a particular face to an alternative identity – and the security agencies in [name of country] will obviously demand a backdoor into the system. Any country with sufficient resources will want to have control over which facial recognition searchers link to which faces (to protect their agents in the field). Today China issues licenses to companies that wish to offer location based services, expect to see a similar model adopted for consumer facing facial recognition based services.

Technically facial recognition is/will only be play small role of figuring who we are: the places we check-into; the transactions we make; where we are, with whom; other people nearby tagging us; other biometric data; the sensors we carry, can all be mined in real time. But it’s the face, and facial recognition – the most personal and comprehendible part of our human identity that we currently think of as our own, that we will take personally.

On a different tangent – there are many things that we used to have to remember and that we are now largely comfortable forgetting in the modern world: everything from addresses and phone numbers to how to do long form multiplication. Increasingly it will be less important to ‘remember a face’, or at least the faces on the periphery of our social, progressional and other networks – simply because the ability to recall can be delegated to technology. In a world we can be connected to what’s important in real time – its more about knowing what tools to turn to to recall than the need to recollection itself. This will lead to some interesting situations where when the network goes down we’re forced into the old ways – committing faces to names and the identities that lie behind them remembering what people do, who they are will at some point be a novel experience – much like the legions of laptop users talking to each other in cafes only once the network or power goes down. As with all socially connected services – adoption and usage patterns will differ considerably depending on life-stage and to a lesser extent culture and personality. You can only be a teenager once and as much as anyone who is not able to put something on the line as they explore how a services work will struggle to truly ‘get it’.

Of course reading the emotions on a face – whether someone is angry, sad, sympathetic, happy and so on will continue to be important – because it shapes so much of our social interaction – although as the resolution of the images that are being captures and our ability to read faces evolves – some of this will bubble up – our mouth says we have a deal, your micro-expressions show disgust, anger and fear. There will be a new generation of business leaders (and practices) who will specialise in closing cross cultural deals, knowing that every micro-expression will be recorded and played back.

Bootnote: Any profession that currently requires a degree of anonymity is going to be in for a bumpy ride in the next few years – as who we or could be becomes more apparent: researchers; journalists; undercover cops; spies. Social networks can be faked, but the depth, granularity that we require from a social network is constantly evolving and in the near-term will make faking a network increasingly difficult. Whilst some careers will be destroyed by real time recognition, others will be enabled – there will literally be a new army of people that will be the ‘faces of the brand’.