Your face is becoming a barcode and the world a warehouse

The barcode – a simple collection of lines printed on a piece of paper – is one of the most important inventions of the 20th Century. It absolutely changed the world and yet the world tends to take it for granted and largely ignore it. When Joseph Woodland first came up with the idea of using Morse Code on a piece of paper as a way of capturing product information, he probably had little idea of how much of a gamechanger it would be. The fact that it made maintaining inventories easier and more accurate, queues shorter, and tracking of freight possible, it was just the beginning. What it really did was turn physical goods, of all shapes and sizes, into digital goods. Anything with a barcode on it was, suddenly, no longer just a thing. It was a thing, plus data, tagged as a node in a global network of things and data. Barcodes ushered in the information age we all live in now.

Arguably, every advance in human history has, at its root, an effort from someone to take an inventory. Numbers, for example, were invented because people like the Phoenicians needed to record information about their trade. Much of writing starts with the ledgers of ancient Babylonians. We seem to have an innate need to record both ourselves and our goods as an inventory system and that’s where the idea of barcodes begins to have enormous implications.

If barcodes are one of the most important inventions of the 20th Century, then what invention of the 21st Century builds on that legacy? The answer is not what you might think. It’s not artificial intelligence or blockchain, for example. It’s another technology that, like barcodes, is becoming taken for granted and largely ignored. It’s a technology that, like barcodes, has a similar ability to revolutionise the world. But this technology doesn’t just turn physical goods into digital ones. This technology turns human beings into digital beings. It’s facial recognition.

If numbers and letters are the most natural way we have of recognising physical goods, then faces are the most natural way we have of recognising one another. So much so, that facial recognition is an essential human skill. Without it we struggle to socialise and to interact with one another as human beings. Technology that allowed machines to have that critical human skill was developed in the 1970’s, but in the last few years huge advances have been made in facial recognition technology and the implications are quite sobering.

Since Apple debuted the technology in the iPhoneX last year, almost every single phone company has now developed a phone with facial recognition built in. CCTV is now a familiar feature of day-to-day life. Anyone using social media, is using facial recognition every day to tag people and organise their photos. Customs services around the world are using it to prevent identity fraud. Retailers are using it to identify known shoplifters as soon as they enter the store. For the last two years, KFC have been trialling it in stores in China as a way for customers to pay for their fried chicken!

Recognition software has turned our faces into barcodes. Cameras are now scanners that automatically catalogue the people who walk past them. We are becoming inventory, and the world a warehouse of human beings that are tracked and managed like all other physical goods.

There are obviously enormous benefits to this. Like barcodes did for physical goods, facial recognition can make things faster, easier, more accurate and safer. But there is also a downside. Facial recognition goes way beyond the capabilities of barcodes. Barcodes ultimately just gave physical goods a data address. Facial recognition not only gives humans a data address, but it also has the potential to link that address to behaviour. We are already seeing the threat to privacy that tech giants tracking our viewing habits and buying behaviours then selling them to advertisers represents. Facial recognition takes that to a whole new level. Once widely employed, facial recognition means that you cannot go anywhere without someone knowing about it, recording it and using that information for whatever purpose without your permission. Where does that lead us?

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