Facial Recognition: The Biggest Disruptor

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Facial Recognition: The Biggest Disruptor

There’s a Facebook meme at the moment called the “10 year challenge” where users post pictures of themselves from a decade ago and now. Neither Jessica nor I will be taking part. First of all, we don’t use Facebook. Second, we both look much, much better now than 10 years ago and we don’t want to brag. Just take our word on that…

A Wired magazine writer had a more pointed objection, however: what if Facebook uses this data to refine an aging-predictive artificial intelligence algorithm? On the plus side, she acknowledged, it could be used to find missing children long after their disappearance. But the problems with such an algo are theoretically vast, ranging from insurance companies using it to increase prices for individuals who look to be aging prematurely to endless privacy concerns.

All this reminded us of one underappreciated fact: AI powered facial recognition is perhaps the most important disruptive technology in active development. Self-driving cars are cool, and voice assistants like Alexa are helpful, but having the ability to identify a specific person in any public space in less than a second trumps them by a mile. There is a reason both Facebook and Amazon have seen very public pushback on this technology; once it is in widespread use, governments will be able to monitor every individual in real time.

That’s a good reason to remind you of SenseTime, the most significant company anywhere in the world when it comes to facial recognition. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s likely because it is a Hong Kong based enterprise and most of its business comes from China. That gives it a real edge over US tech companies since the Chinese government actively works with SenseTime, giving them all the data they need to train its AI-powered algorithms. A sharp difference to US attitudes, to say the least…

Last week news broke that SenseTime is looking to raise $2 billion this year, adding to the $1.2 billion raised in 2018 that valued the company at $4.5 billion. It is already the world’s most valuable AI startup. This year’s round will only push it up the valuation tables. See here for more: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-10/world-s-largest-ai-startup-said-to-ready-2-billion-fundraising-jqq7odu4

All this is important for more than just government surveillance, however, as the other SenseTime news from last week shows: the company is opening an R&D center in Japan to further develop autonomous vehicles. It already has a tie up with Honda in this effort, since its technology is also useful for object recognition (street signs, obstructions, etc.). See here for more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/01/10/sensetime-self-driving-center-japan/

Summing up (and not too dramatically, we believe): in the US, AI facial recognition is controversial but in China it is a state-level priority. It is a stark and important difference for this transformative technology.

Wired article: https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-10-year-meme-challenge/