Microsoft claims its facial recognition technology just got a little less awful. Earlier this year, a study by MIT researchers found that tools from IBM, Microsoft, and Chinese company Megvii could correctly identify light-skinned men with 99-percent accuracy. But it incorrectly identified darker-skinned women as often as one-third of the time. Now imagine a computer incorrectly flagging an image at an airport or in a police database, and you can see how dangerous those errors could be. Microsoft's software performed poorly in the study.
Amazon's latest artificial intelligence tool is a piece of image recognition software that can learn to guess a human's age. The feature is powered by Amazon's Rekognition platform, which is a developer toolkit that exists as part of the company's AWS cloud computing service. So long as you're willing to go through the process of signing up for a basic AWS account -- that entails putting in credit card info but Amazon won't charge you -- you can try the age-guessing software for yourself. In what sounds like a smart move on Amazon's end, the tool gives a wide range instead of trying to pinpoint a specific number, along with the likelihood that the subject of the image is smiling or wearing glasses. Microsoft tried the latter approach back in 2015 with its own AI tool, resulting in some hilariously bad estimates that exposed fundamental weaknesses in how these types of image recognition algorithms function.
Facial-recognition technology has become deeply integrated in tech giants' products, whether the key feature for unlocking Apple's iPhone X or identifying people in Google's photos app. In his latest missive, Mr. Smith tackles the potential "sobering" uses for facial-recognition technology, such as creating a database of everyone who attended a political rally or governmental tracking of residents as they move about without their permission or knowledge. "The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself," Mr. Smith wrote in a blog post scheduled for Friday. But he also challenged the notion companies could regulate themselves alone. Change won't occur, he said, if a few companies adopt new standards while rivals ignore them.
In a blog post today, Microsoft President Brad Smith called for Congress to begin considering regulation of facial recognition technology, calling it "the technology of the moment" and noting its "broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse." Throughout the post, Smith discusses the potential pros and cons of facial recognition while also highlighting its current limitations, and he ultimately questions, "What role do we want this type of technology to play in everyday society?" It's a timely question, as Amazon is currently facing pushback over its facial recognition technology and its practice of selling it to law enforcement groups. Employees have asked the company to stop providing law enforcement with the technology, as has the ACLU and multiple Amazon investors. Microsoft has also faced some controversy over its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but Smith said today that the contract isn't being used for facial recognition.
Faced with mounting criticism of its "Rekognition" system, Amazon has come out in favor of legislating facial recognition technology. In a blog post, the company has revealed its "proposed guidelines" for the responsible use of the tech that it hopes policymakers in the US and worldwide will consider when drafting new laws. Amazon's five-step rulebook essentially calls for use of the tech to be governed by current laws, including those that protect civil rights. It also urges human oversight when facial recognition is used by law enforcement and recommends a 99 percent confidence score threshold for identification, adding that the tech should not be the "sole determinant" in an investigation. It calls for law enforcement to release regular transparency reports on their use of the systems.