Even as I write this, market researchers at Hollywood studios are using face recognition technology to measure how a test audience reacts to a rough-cut blockbuster in real-time. Gone are the biased post-viewing quizzes. In its place is real-time data showing specific points in the story when audience members laugh, cry or remain stone-faced.
Four decades after the invention of face recognition, the technology has finally gone mainstream. That’s true in the United States, where major brands such as Apple, Facebook, Delta and many others are using it to enhance security and convenience. FaceFirst customers use it to prevent crime and accelerate personal identification. Increasingly, our customers are seeking to provide a higher level of customer experience and are starting to preview the “future” in many forms. In some parts of the world, face recognition is increasingly used for payment authentication.
Not surprisingly, face recognition technology also has its detractors. It’s obvious why criminals oppose face recognition, but what about privacy advocates? The ACLU has good intentions, but has in fact taken an extreme position on even old-school video surveillance systems for decades. Meanwhile, if the popularity of face recognition-equipped phones, computers and apps are any indication, the general public has never been more excited.
Face recognition is hardly the first revolutionary innovation to spark groundless fears from special interest groups. Here are five more technologies that scared us, then saved us:
The Personal Computer
In 1983, “computerphobia” was so rampant that the movie War Games – in which a high school hacker playing a war game inadvertently triggers a real nuclear launch countdown – seemed believable enough to turn the tall tale into a blockbuster. Keep in mind that in the 1980s and 1990s, many personal computers were completely unconnected to anything resembling the Internet. Despite this, fears that users would become slaves to computers, be replaced by computers or inadvertently do harm via their computers were common, spawning self-help books and classes.
That’s right, the Customer Relationship Management software now dominated by companies like Salesforce and Oracle were once extremely controversial. Rewind to the year 2000, when Salesforce began popularizing the radical idea of hosting its clients’ customer databases. For most CIOs, a special place in hell was reserved for those who suggested letting another company host its proprietary data, let alone a tiny startup out in California. Fears of data loss, service interruption and hacks were rampant. While some of those things did in fact come to pass, the results were hardly as cataclysmic as the detractors feared. Over the past two decades, Salesforce in particular has set exemplary standards of privacy, security and convenience that have become the envy of virtually every company in the world.
Scores of classic books and films such as 1984, Demotion Man and Logan’s Run were representative of fears of government surveillance. For a couple of decades after the invention of CCTV, the presence of a surveillance camera was actually seen as a crime deterrent. By the 1980s, when cameras became ubiquitous in airports, retail stores and elsewhere, it was clear that, for the most part, nobody was watching. From that point on, cameras went almost unnoticed. Nevertheless, the technology continues to be incredibly useful to police and businesses in solving crimes.
In the 1990s, the Internet was seen as the gateway to many evils, including widespread plagiarism and business disruption, but none held a candle to the hysteria around “Y2K,” an Internet-driven doomsday that was said to be coming at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000. Predicted collapses ranged from personal computers to the banking system to the Biblical apocalypse. So were there problems on New Year’s Day? A few for sure, but nothing like the disaster that was feared. In the years since, the global economy has continued to be fueled by the Internet, which has brought previously unforeseen marvels – including democratized information and education – to the masses.
When Myspace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other services gained momentum in the mid-2000s, warnings from privacy advocates and even many psychologists were dire. For sure, some of what was predicted has come to pass. Many services have been hacked; app developers have abused access to user data, harvesting personally identifiable information for political and professional gain; stalking and voyeurism are small but undeniable issues; and trolling and online bullying persist. Despite these issues, half the Earth’s population continue to voluntarily upload public photos of their private and professional lives for all the world to see. Why? Because these platforms have also helped reunite long-lost friends and family members, given nonprofit organizations previously unimaginable reach and resources, helped political groups organize in hotspots around the world, and launched countless businesses. Apart from a few deposed dictators that were displaced in part thanks to revolutionaries organizing on social media platforms, humanity seems to have decided that the benefits of social networks far outweigh the costs.
In retrospect, it’s clear that some anxieties associated with these incredibly important technologies were simply naive. Others were accurate, but grossly overstated. In time, it’s clear that current hot-button technologies such as face recognition, artificial intelligence and machine learning will become generally taken for granted as they already are in some small segments of daily life.
Face recognition is far from the only maturing technology causing great anxiety. In particular, artificial intelligence applications – especially voice recognition apps such as Alexa and Siri – are simultaneously experiencing rapid adoption while occasionally causing alarm. For example, Amazon’s Echo inadvertently recorded an unsuspecting couple’s conversation and sent it to one of her husband’s employees.
In the meantime, the challenge to CEOs, journalists and technologists everywhere is to educate. In doing so, we must avoid hyperbole not only about our solutions’ capabilities, but also about the likelihood of cataclysmic eventualities. In particular, we need to clearly and honestly help customers understand the intersection between privacy, security and convenience in the context of each new innovation.