The dire theme of Orwellian dystopia was that there could be a super-state that would carry out intrusive surveillance on activities of its citizens and oversee lives of individuals for its own purposes. Civil liberty, privacy, data protection etc. would be effectively redundant terms with no real connotation – just utopian terms to satisfy the hyperbolic ego of the public. That day when the presumed Orwellian dystopia would come to be a reality is not too far away.
India has already completed biometric database for nearly 90 per cent of 1.3 billion population of the country using finger prints, iris scan and still photographs. The remaining 10 per cent or so will be completed soon. Logistically it was a super daunting task covering such a huge population over the huge country, but they have nearly completed that task in a cost-effective way and the system is in operation. No matter where an Indian is in the vast sprawling country, his 12-digit ID will uniquely identify him who he is, where does he come from, what is his occupation etc with a click of a button.
China, on the other hand, is going one step further and in a somewhat different direction. They are going for facial recognition. Whereas finger prints, iris scan etc are intrusive and legally these items belong to the individual who offered them in the first place; facial image is a public property – it is there for everyone to see and does not belong to any individual. The image can be taken without the individual even knowing about it and can be used without violating proprietary rights.
The idea of facial recognition by technological means came from the simple fact that human eyes can recognise faces of individuals with the blink of an eye. If human eyes can recognise human faces so easily and accurately, surely technologically it would be possible to do so, even if the population size of human faces is enormous. Human face obviously carries all the information that a photograph carries such as facial shape, colour of the skin, size of eyes, nose etc; but in addition, it carries a host of other intrinsic information.
Human faces convey multitude of subtle and not so subtle information. Emotions such as liking and disliking, anger and elation, love and hate, hope and despair, and even attempts of deceit and falsification are all etched on faces. The visual computing with proper algorithm associated with artificial intelligence (AI) can effectively catch all of these emotional traits far more reliably than simple human eyes. If that is the case, then this facial recognition technique can presumably lead the human society to a dystopic state which Orwell feared so much.
A Chinese company by the name Megvii (meaning mega-vision in Chinese) in Beijing is spearheading this facial recognition technology in the field of human identification. A good quality video camera can take photos of individuals and then those photos are analysed with proper algorithms to decipher the requisite information. If a national data bank is available, then this simple innocuous photo can dig out the details of that individual – his name, address, family background, employment, his vehicle, driving records etc. Literally his whole background can be flashed out on the screen from a simple photo of his face.
Of course, there would be attempts to mislead or thwart this recognition technology by camouflaging the face with makeup or cover part of the face with reflective sunglasses etc. But already research is going on to overcome subverting this attempt. The University of Cambridge had demonstrated that the AI can reconstruct facial structures of people in disguise. So, there is nowhere to hide, the big brother will get you!
The potentiality of this start-up company is so great that within short span of six years (it started in 2011), it is already valued at about $2 billion and 300,000 companies and individuals around the world are using this face recognition technology. Although visual recognition technology is not as advanced as speech recognition technology, it is making progress in leaps and bounds. In a few years’ time, it may improve like the speech recognition with reliability improvement from 90% to 95% and then on to 99% and then facial recognition will take over the whole landscape of personal identification.
The smartphones are racing for reliable face recognition after the speech recognition of Amazon Echo. Only a few days ago, iPhoneX had unveiled a version of mobile technology where the owner’s face can be recognised and used to unlock the device even in the dark. There are smartphones in China where the owners swipe their faces to authorise bank payments! In the UK Lloyds Bank is looking into facial recognition for ATM money withdrawal.
There are other advantages too. With terrorism and individual violence on the way up, there is a need to have surveillance across the whole spectrum of the society. Face recognition in areas such as train stations, tube/tram stations, bus stations, shopping malls etc. would be vital tool to the security services. Even more important this technology would be at the airports. If someone is hatching a ploy to blow up a plane, visual technology can fork out his inner scheme and stop the scheme.
But Orwellian dystopia cannot be dismissed outright. Obviously, this technology when fully developed will have beneficial use, but the detrimental side of it cannot be ignored – it will embrace the whole society, it will go against the grain of civil liberty etc. So, a compromise has to be struck and that compromise would be dependent on the attitude of the state. A totalitarian state may use it purely to control its population for its own purpose, whereas a utopian state may use it purely for safety and security of its population. A coin has always two sides.