SciFi novelist Jon Wallace explores the threat of facial recognition technology
To most, engineering still evokes the best parts of humanity: curiosity; adaptability; doggedness. It’s that which allows us to apply our restless spirit to noble pursuits: shaping the landscape, augmenting our impressive natural senses, and consolidating our dominion of the Earth. For many, engineering advances are the measure by which we mark our species’ progress.
Still, every now and then, a story crops up in The Engineer’s news feed that might seem contrary to this spirit of enlightened advance. The effort to perfect facial recognition technology by Bristol Robotics Laboratory’s Centre for Machine Vision is one such. “Our 3D solution provides pinpoint accuracy,” boasts a spokesperson. “For national or high security… our solution provides an extra layer of confidence.”
Indeed, what utility has the technology for augmenting the already considerable arsenals of state surveillance and marketeers? There is something seedy about it. At least the fingerprint has the benefit of imminence – when the border guard at JFK tells you to present your thumbprint you are, like it or not, wilfully participating. The facial recognition scan, on the other hand, is designed to occur without consent: where CCTV can be said to monitor a particular area, facial recognition monitors us. A fingerprint is the smudge we leave on the world, whereas the scan smears us all.
The Facebook age
Perhaps we should get used to it. In the Facebook age we’ve all mortgaged our features to some extent. But to the scifi author, facial recognition throws up some troubling questions. After all, our face is our flag, our uniqueness in the crowd. Altering it has the potential to make other people of us; and there comes the opportunity for story.
Faces have a crucial role establishing the world of scifi stories: the smallest prosthetic bumps and ridges suffice to suspend our disbelief in a Star Trek universe of humanoid aliens; a mere pair of glasses is enough to bamboozle Clark Kent’s co-workers. When scifi counterfeits a human face poorly, with uncanny CGI (Leia in Rogue One) or dodgy make-up (‘old’ Peter Weyland in Prometheus) it can throw the audience out of the drama completely.
The face is also integral to establishing characters: In tales such as Robocop and Ex Machina, it is the face that allows viewers to connect with robot protagonists. Disfigurement, particularly in comic-book tales, is the defining instrument of The Joker, Darkman and Deadpool’s transformation into something beyond human.
A technology that captures, maps and logs our faces, therefore, doesn’t inspire the most optimistic visions. Like the mobile telephone, it narrows a writer’s options: Superman’s secret identity would hardly pass muster in the age of ‘machine vision’. We can only imagine how future marketeers will deploy this technology, accumulating facial data to build an ever-more-complete picture of consumers – and harangue them more efficiently. A face easily mapped is a face easily reproduced, and a future of adverts incorporating our own features cannot be
far away: uncanny CGI doppelgangers projected online and in the street, showing us better version of ourselves, driving sports cars on mountain roads or brushing with new Gleemodent.
Who knows, society may fight back: we could set a story in a world where a new craze emerges in big cities: to wear 3D-printed masks of those that would steal and sell our likenesses; the Murdochs, Saatchis and Maybots of the future. One man has a particular fondness for masking up as the President. This draws winks and nods in the city, but on a trip to the countryside, where the practice is unknown, he is mistaken for the real thing and assassinated.
Governments would have something to say about masking up: there is something subversive about covering the face – as Mr Robot and V for Vendetta show – and governments could outlaw the mask, citing the notion that a revealed face is part of the social contract. But the fight could go on: new clans form, using jewellery, prosthetics and chin-length ‘super-hippy’ hair to confuse and scatter facial recognition scans. We could tell the tale of two super hippies who find love: unwilling to reveal their features, they show their affection by tying intricate knots in each other’s locks.
What might the mapping and printing of faces mean for relationships? Could robots be masked up as lost or unrequited loves? Or used for more nefarious schemes? A story could follow a Hollywood actor who murders her actor husband. Attempting to cover her tracks, she masks up a robot to accompany her to premieres. She fears the robot’s speech is too wooden to pass muster, so is stunned when his career takes off. Whatever facial recognition takes us, we have to ask: if technology makes people hide, can it really be progress?
Jon Wallace is a science fiction author living in England. He is the author of Barricade, published by Gollancz