Sunday, December 30, 2012

Defeating Facial Recognition

I saw a web advertisement from Merrill Edge Investments (not to be confused with Merrill Lynch... a risk latent, greedy, delusional, Wall Street investment firm that helped firm cheat millions of people out of their retirement earnings) for a new investment tool called Face Retirement.  The concept of the ad campaign is based on the work of Daniel Goldstein, PhD, who says people fail to invest for retirement is because they "can't see themselves as old."  His research indicated that if you showed someone a picture of what they would look like at age 65, it would motivate them to spend the next 15, 25, 35 years preparing for reaching that age.

I didn't believe it when I heard him say it the first time, but I salute him for managing to bilk the Wall Street suits out of the money to implement this as a web app.  I'll tell you why its a stupid idea in a few minutes, but first the fun stuff.

Merrill Edge implemented a facial recognition system that implements an aging feature.  You are suppose to use your web cam to center your face in an oval and snap a picture of yourself.  I decided to use this to demonstrate why facial recognition is not implemented in the wild.  You see, the basic concept that most people fail to understand about facial recognition is the question: What is a face?  Consider our first example.
As is obvious, this is a face-- it just happens to be the face of a dog (and not even a real dog, at that.)  The software successfully denied access, on the grounds that the face was not properly formatted.  In the second example, the application was presented with a "more" human face.

Again the software successfully denied access.  It did specifically recommend I remove my hat. 

Option number three was also a failure, thought this is a properly formatted, obviously human face.  Unfortunately, it is not a "real" face, but a picture from an AllState Insurance brochure.  If I owned stock in a facial recognition company, I might stop here, trumpeting how well the product had discarded this obvious attempt at trickery.  But I don't own any stock.  I can't remember why not... Oh, yes, thieving Wall Street scum bags.

But I digress.  Attempt number four:

Success!  I was granted access, using a photo of face.  Why did face three fail, but face four succeed?  Notice that face number three is not looking into the camera, but face four is a full frontal view.  This allowed the software to properly align the eyes, nose, and mouth.  The senorita from the cover of the "Instant Immersion Spanish" box does not have ears, but male model did not have eyes (they are closed.)

The fun thing about facial recognition is that most can be tricked by a photograph and the few that cannot, are usually tricked by a mask.  In all production quality systems, additional safeguards (heat sensors, echo location) have to be implemented to override these simple hacks.

As for why this idea of showing someone an aged image of themselves is stupid...  Its a short run fix.  Goldstein researches a favorite subject of mine, decision theory.  He indicates that we postpone long range decisions, because we do not see them as relevant.  By demonstrating aging, he hopes to bring a sense of reality to the abstract concept of time.  This works only until the car needs new tires or the muffler replaced.  No one is going to sit on the side of the road, replacing a bald, dry-rotted, flat tire, and say to themselves:
I've got one spare tire.  If this tire blew, the others are bound to go at any minute.  I can spend $500 on four new tires, or I can put the $500 toward retirement.  Would I rather have a safe car that I can drive to work, or I can make life better for "future me".
No.  The decision is simple: Replace the tires, screw "future me".  Short run always wins over long run, because "In the long run, we are all dead."  Which raises the question as to why Merrill Edge would spend the money on such a tool?  Are they altruistically trying to change human nature?

No.  Like I said... Its a short run fix.  The purpose of the tool is to "help you make a long run decision", knowing full well that short run realities will overcome the tool's effectiveness.  But by then, they've got what long run money you had available at that short run moment.

At isn't that what really matters.  That... and using stuffed dog puppets to validate new technology.

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