Facial recognition, like targeted advertising before it, is the internet's newest bogeyman. Many have an instant aversion to their faces being scanned by a computer. You shouldn't. With the right caveats, the tech's like robot vacuums: helpful, not scary.
It's not so surprising that personal facial recognition has created a face-jerk reaction among privacy advocates. The word connotes a sort of sinister sci-fi vibe. Your face—the computer recognizes it! And not just any computer—a company's computer! As rational beasts we have both a natural fear of both computers that think faster than us and corporations that like to think for us.
But in this case, prima facie paranoia is shortsighted and wrong. Facial recognition in its current iterations just doesn't have the capability for evil. It's not out to hunt you or hurt you—it's out to help you.
The single most dazzling part of iPhoto right now is its ability to dig through years and years of your entire life and pull out the people you care about. With a few clicks, the software gives cascading portraits of the people I care most about IRL—and lets me jump straight into times we've laughed and eaten and passed out together.
Facial recognition. iPhoto—and now Facebook—learns what we and our friends look like, and make it easier in turn for us to look at them. And that's nice. Amid the cloying glut of digital photos on both my hard drive and Facebook's servers, I care more about the ones including people I actually give a shit about. Facial recognition culls these moments out, near-effortlessly. The computer's helping you feel human.
You know what sucks? Passwords. They're almost always shitty, and when they're not, they're really hard to remember. The password is a fundamentally flawed concept. You know what isn't? Your face. It's unique in a way that any combination of characters can never be, and as it's attached to your skull quite permanently, can't be forgotten. Facial recognition security via webcam—already in use with some computers—is a possible future of personal security for phones, desktops, and everything between.
This is still in its infancy, but being able to track your mug will make gadgets more fun. It's already popped up with the new (and admittedly goofily shallow) Photo Booth in Lion, which lets you don cartoon effects that glide around with your face.
But tracking the nuances of your countenance will enhance everything from silly self-portraiture to hardcore gaming. New 3D displays are already using eye-tracking to give you an optimal view, and a higher-fidelity console camera, a la Kinect, could unlock a panoply of ways to entertainingly exploit your head. And it'll be open to iOS 5 devs for any use they can dream up.
That being said, let's establish two giant, plump caveats: it's an imperfect technology, and you should always be able to opt-out of it.
The shortcomings of facial recognition are few but notable. What happens when it's dark out? What happens when we age? Nose jobs? And so forth. Our faces are unique, but mutable, and the conditions to scan 'em aren't always ideal.
And then there's, yes, privacy.
Facebook has, for once, taken the right move here (although it took some governmental shoving). If you don't want them to have a small database linking the faces of you and your friends to your names, you can delete the whole thing. But think of it this way: since you started using Facebook many years ago, you've been giving Zuckerberg exactly that, in the form of tags. It's just that writing out the name of your girlfriend is less threatening than an algorithm recognizing her automatically.
But that's an irrational threat—the threat of novelty. A couple decades back, the idea of typing all our pals into a big digital list would have sounded ominous too—but now it's a given. Facial recognition just takes yesterday's creepiness and makes it tomorrow's convenience.
You can keep up with Sam Biddle, the author of this post, on Twitter or Facebook.