Faces, continued

The discussion yesterday was so interesting that I thought it would be a good idea to spend another day on this topic. When it comes to the question of ubiquitous face recognition (ie: technology assist that lets you recognize the face of anyone, anywhere, anytime), I think there are two issues that somehow got entangled in the comments.

One is the issue of prosthesis, and the other is the issue of privacy. When talking about computer-assisted face recognition as a prosthetic, it is useful to note that there is nothing even remotely unnatural about such a technology. In fact, humans have rather sophisticated machinery within our brains that allows us to recognize faces (it turns out that reasoning power alone is insufficient — to identify the face of another person, you actually need that dedicated hardware you’ve got in your cerebrum).

So using software to enhance facial recognition is no more unnatural than contact lenses, hearing aids or prosthetic shoes. In each case, a natural human ability is being augmented through technology.

Privacy only becomes an concern when we ask what becomes of those images we are all taking with our digital cameras. And here is where it might become useful to push the discussion a bit further into the future.

Let’s skip ahead another thirty years or so. In 2040, the iPhone has become a relic of the past, interesting only as an arcane cultural artifact, like a TI99 might be in the year 2010. We all have implants in our corneas that allow our eyes to see whatever cybervisions we wish, all networked wirelessly at very high data rates.

In the world of 2040, it is a given that your eyes have automatic computer-assist for recognizing faces, and many other things besides. Your cyber-enhanced eyes and ears are gathering data all the time, and your implanted personal CPUs are continually sifting through that data, for things that you personally would find of interest.

But here’s the rub: The moment that data leaves your body, there is an issue. The fact that whatever you see can instantly be transmitted to the world has all of a sudden become somebody else’s business — the business of the person you happen to be looking at.

I predict that a body of legal rulings will eventually be built around the question of what allowable limits there may be on my right to surreptitiously broadcast what I see with my own eyes. And those rulings will not decide in favor of unrestricted, unconditional rebroadcast of captured reality.

If we keep this scenario in mind, the issues become clear: I should have unlimited right to use iPhone based face recognition as a prosthetic — ie, for my own use in recognizing faces.

But once I start broadcasting my captured images to the world, identifying exactly who was where and when they were there, then I’ve crossed the line into potential invasion of privacy. That’s when the legal questions will start — and where the fuzzy line of what society finds acceptable will eventually become defined not through technology, but through case law.

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