Why Face Recognition isn’t scary – yet

Most of the time, Stacey Schlittenhard finds facial recognition technology to be extremely useful. When she uploads her family photos to the website Picasa, for instance, the program automatically tags her friends and family members. This lets her share the photos easily and saves her hours of organization.

But every now and then, the computer gets things flat wrong.

“Babies,” she says. “That’s the hardest thing. All babies kind of look alike — they all have little round faces. If I label one baby as my [2-year-old] son, it will label almost every baby as my son.”

In another instance, she said, Google’s Picasa thought a lollipop was her friend.

As she uses facial recognition programs, Schlittenhard is coming face to face with a fact that has been troubling computer scientists for decades:

It’s hard to teach a machine to know a human face — and it’s harder still to teach a computer to identify one face from any other.

That may be comforting news for people worried about governments using facial recognition systems to surveil the public — in effect, ending anonymity.

Technologists say those ideas exist only in science fiction movies — at least for now.

“I don’t think, currently, any facial recognition system is good enough for security purposes — not even close, actually,” said Yi Ma, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, and a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research in China.

Using face recognition for surveillance or to identify people at borders and in airports has been tried in limited settings, Ma said, but it is at least a decade if not much further away from becoming real and reliable.

Meanwhile, a handful of consumer apps are using available technology to detect faces in family and party photos — where accuracy is not as important.

On July 1, for example, Facebook announced it would give its users the ability to use facial detection software to select faces from photos on the site.

Facebook’s new feature only selects faces. It doesn’t identify the people in photos by name. But in a blog post, Facebook product manager Sam Odio said that updates to this system will be coming.

“Stay tuned for future posts about other work on browsing, uploading and tagging,” he wrote in the post.

Some photo tools go further than Facebook by identifying people in photos automatically. Face.com, a company that builds the face-recognizing software behind apps like Photo Finder and PhotoTagger, identifies friends in your photos by comparing them with similar shots on Facebook.

The company’s CEO, Gil Hirsch, said the goal is to make photo sharing fast.

“Tagging the whole [photo] album — let’s say 200 photos — takes less than 30 seconds” when using Face.com technology, he said.

Google’s Picasa and Apple’s iPhoto perform similar functions. A Google test product called Goggles may also identify faces from mobile phones.

Michael Sipe, vice president of product development at PittsburghPattern Recognition, a Carnegie Mellon University split-off company that makes face-recognizing software and is funded in part by the U.S. military, said the family photo programs are a response to the hassles of curating digital photo collections.


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