Three days ago, in a letter to members of the United States Congress, IBM announced that it was abandoning the development of general-purpose facial recognition technologies because of their potential for mass surveillance, human rights violations and racial discrimination.
In his letter, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna called for a reconsideration of the sale of this kind of technology to law enforcement, a gesture with which the company, which after all was announcing the abandonment of a technology in which it is not a leader and that has little impact on its bottom line, managed to put pressure on the companies that do have contracts with those law enforcement agencies, notably Amazon and Microsoft. The next day, Timnit Gebru, one of the leaders of Google’s artificial intelligence team, said in an interview with the New York Times that the use of facial recognition technologies by law enforcement or security forces should be banned for the moment, and that he did not know how the issue would evolve in the future.
One day later, on Wednesday 10, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on the police’s use of its facial recognition technology, the controversial Rekognition, so as to continue improving it and, above all, to give the government time to reach a reasonable consensus and establish stricter regulations for its ethical use. The company will continue to facilitate the use of this technology by institutions that use it for other purposes, such as preventing human trafficking or reuniting missing children with their families, but will temporarily stop offering it to the police and law enforcement agencies, one of its main customers. And today, Microsoft has followed suit.
There is a fundamental dilemma at the heart of facial recognition technology: with its development at an already very reasonable level of maturity, it provides numerous uses in the private sphere make life easier for, such as unlocking devices or accessing certain spaces. But in the public sphere, it can be, and in fact is being used already in many cases for monitoring and controlling us, with increasing ubiquity and simplicity and with often less-than satisfactory outcomes.
The dilemma is the same as always: like any other technology, it is neither good nor bad, and depends on the use we make of it. And in any case, as I have already commented on numerous occasions, technology cannot be “uninvented”, at this point. To think that we are going to stop using it to unlock our devices, or that China is going to think about abandoning its use is ridiculous. Once again, we are faced with a case in which regulation is required so as to establish what kind of world we want to live in.
Debate is now raging over the use of facial recognition throughout the world. In the United States, cities such as San Francisco or Somerville have already taken the step of banning the use of facial recognition by police and other agencies, and there are growing calls for its urgent regulation. In Europe, a temporary ban on its use in public places is being considered for up to five years. Meanwhile, in China, the authorities continue to roll out surveillance technology throughout the country, now even more so after the pandemic, and at a level difficult for most of us in the West to understand.
China today would seem to bring to mind the worst kind of dystopia. But when asked, except for a small minority, the vast majority of Chinese not only accept being monitored in this way, along with the sinister social credit system straight out of an episode of Black Mirror, but justify it and see it as a way of guaranteeing the stability, progress and security of their society, particularly in the context of the pandemic.
Anybody tempted to quote Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” are likely to be reminded that this is a paradigm of Western thought. There are no similar conclusions in the thoughts of Confucius, Lao-Tse or even Buddha. Analyzing China through the prism of the West is a waste of time.
China has found in facial recognition a technology that suits its interests very well, and will continue to develop it no matter what IBM or anybody else in the west says. If we decide not to develop it, we will end up having to acquire it from China. And in the West, facial recognition, in the absence of improvements to prevent its algorithms from applying discrimination, we can expect that once we have applied adequate regulation, we will continue to use it too, because it is both convenient, and when used properly, is a reasonable form of control.
Once again: technology is here to stay, and so is facial recognition. But if IBM’s gesture — even if it were to sacrifice an asset that it did not have — serves to make us question its use and advance in its necessary regulation to make it fairer, it should be welcomed.
Original post: https://www.forbes.com/sites/enriquedans/2020/06/11/facial-recognition-is-here-to-stay-but-can-we-control-itsuse/