Heaven and Hell Have Merged

061119-01 China Facial Recognition

Can technology be wonderful? The left-hand photo shows how facial recognition technology, the scanning of your face, allows this screen inside an airport in China to give you a flight status update, automatically. That’s a low-grade version of heaven. The photo alongside it shows Uighurs being watched in Muslim, northwest China using that same technology. Welcome to outright hell. Lots of people used to doubt me when I said face recognition (identity) and the next step, facial coding automation (emotion recognition), will for better or worse radically transform our world. Not anymore. The Economist magazine, for one, now speaks in terms of the emerging “facial-industrial complex.” Watch out—because they’re watching you. On Monday of this week, the Department of Homeland Security admitted to a large data breach consisting of photos of U.S. travelers taken at scanning post inside our country’s airports. Who did it, and what kind of information do they hope to unlock?

There’s an old business joke about Carly Fiorina going to the afterlife following her merger of HP and Compaq. On witnessing lots of suffering around her, Fiorina goes up to a guard and quizzingly complains: “I was supposed to go to heaven. This looks a lot like hell.” The guard’s nonchalant reply: “Didn’t you hear the news? We merged.”