Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A horse walks into a Genius bar and buys an iPhone X. Siri asks, “Why the long face?”
Apple’s newest iPhone includes a 3-D facial recognition system that floods your face with 30,000 infrared dots. The A11 Bionic Chip, which runs 600 billion operations a second, analyzes the data. This enables Face ID to unlock the phone or create animated emojis in your likeness.
This is already pretty cool, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision apps way beyond this. By recognizing a long face, or an otherwise troubled one, it could help diagnose and treat the millions of Americans who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder. It could even be part of the treatment, reminding them to take medication or to reduce stress. And this is only scratching the surface of what the new iPhone could do for health care—if allowed.
Facial recognition has other fascinating uses. Last month, Stanford professors Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang published a study involving 35,000 dating-site images of white people between 18 and 40, all of whom had disclosed their sexual orientation. They ran these through a recognition program called Face++ and came up with a model that accurately predicted whether a man in a photo was straight or gay 81% of the time. They could do the same for 71% of females.
Right on cue, the hyperventilation began. A Bloomberg headline screamed, “ ‘Gaydar’ Shows How Creepy Algorithms Can Get.” The Verge fretted, “The invention of AI ‘gaydar’ could be the start of something much worse.” But is this even new? Jewish mothers have deployed J-Dar for centuries.
My bedrock rule of innovation: Every new technology instantly inspires dystopian fever dreams. Television encourages passivity and square eyeballs. Social networks cause anxiety disorder. Videogames create violent deviants, much as Tipper Gore claimed of explicit music lyrics. Alexander Graham Bell even worried about interruptions from phones! All these fears proved hysterical.
The benefits of new technology take a back seat to these night sweats. Google has joined with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help diagnose depression. Snapchat might be used the same way. But that’s nothing compared with smartphone cameras warning family and friends of potential health issues. Similar apps could identify strokes or heart attacks. But Elon Musk keeps whining that artificial intelligence will cause World War III.
If society is going to break this hope-vs.-fear paradox, it needs to view technological advancement as a property-rights issue. All users horse-trade their personal information for free stuff: email, searches and maps from Google; connections to long-lost friends from Facebook ; product recommendations from Amazon. Each company has built powerful cash-generating engines to exploit this data. It’s hard to tell if it’s a fair trade, since there is no price signal.
Already there are calls to break up the Silicon Valley tech titans. I disagree. Instead, a natural evolution will take place as consumers wake up and realize they have the power. Democracy and capital markets are built on individualism and property rights. New technology enhances these rights.
Here’s a potential scenario: One blatant misuse of facial recognition and we’ll hear the screams from the mountaintop—much like the fake-news or election-meddling mess going on today. Then the conversation will start to focus on who owns the data. Maybe it will prompt a class-action suit. (Yes, there are bottom-feeding lawyers waiting to take your call.) Or maybe the Supreme Court will decide that consumers themselves own the data. Then the business model of Silicon Valley would flip to a negotiation on what service providers are willing to pay for data. This is the looming risk for today’s tech titans.
Want a view into what this future looks like? In response to their massive hacking breach, the new chief executive officer of credit-reporting company Equifax said on these very pages that by Jan. 31 consumers will have “the option of controlling access to their personal credit data.” That’s the first step. The next is pay to play when it comes to your information, including your face. Then and only then will we get the innovation that we deserve, rather than be cut off because of techno-nightmares.