At the end of September, amidst its usual flurry of fall hardware announcements, Amazon debuted two especially futuristic products within five days of each other. The first is a small autonomous surveillance drone, Ring Always Home Cam, that waits patiently inside a charging dock to eventually rise up and fly around your house, checking whether you left the stove on or investigating potential burglaries. The second is a palm recognition scanner, Amazon One, that the company is piloting at two of its grocery stores in Seattle as a mechanism for faster entry and checkout. Both products aim to make security and authentication more convenient--but for privacy-conscious consumers, they also raise red flags. Amazon's latest data-hungry innovations are not launching in a vacuum.
In the last few years, companies have started using such race-detection software to understand how certain customers use their products, who looks at their ads, or what people of different racial groups like. Others use the tool to seek different racial features in stock photography collections, typically for ads, or in security, to help narrow down the search for someone in a database. In China, where face tracking is widespread, surveillance cameras have been equipped with race-scanning software to track ethnic minorities. The field is still developing, and it is an open question how companies, governments and individuals will take advantage of such technology in the future. Use of the software is fraught, as researchers and companies have begun to recognize its potential to drive discrimination, posing challenges to widespread adoption.
"You can already see a material effect that deepfakes have had," said Nick Dufour, one of the Google engineers overseeing the company's deepfake research. "They have allowed people to claim that video evidence that would otherwise be very convincing is a fake." For decades, computer software has allowed people to manipulate photos and videos or create fake images from scratch. But it has been a slow, painstaking process usually reserved for experts trained in the vagaries of software like Adobe Photoshop or After Effects. Now, artificial intelligence technologies are streamlining the process, reducing the cost, time and skill needed to doctor digital images.