Facial recognition – my phone is better than I am

A facial composite produced by FACES software

A facial composite produced by FACES software (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve never been particularly good at recognising faces or at putting names to faces. Unfortunately, this is compounded by the fact that I have to meet a lot of people as part of my job. I used to be really envious of my optician who remembers every single customer by name. Either he doesn’t have many customers or more likely he is very good at recognising people.

Facial recognition seems to be everywhere now. Most smartphones have the technology built-in. My wife’s camera has it. Even Facebook has it, and it tends to be pretty accurate too. Facial recognition has come a very long way since I first played with it 15 years ago.

We were doing some research for some US department of something or other on whether facial recognition and crowd recognition software could be used to tackle such diverse issues as crowd control, anti terrorism and to pick out pickpockets in a large group of people.

The blurb behind the recognition engines was impressive. Apparently, the software could pick out the telltale movement signatures of someone who was up to no good or by looking at a crowd, predictions could be made as to the underlying mood of the crowd and how likely they were to become hostile.

We had to take their word for some of these features, because our lab lacked both a large crowd and a friendly felon to act shiftily. We all took it turns to pretend to act shiftily, but either the machine was too clever to be fooled or we just didn’t have it within us act nefariously enough.

We could, however, test out the facial recognition engine. We each took it in turns to have our photograph taken to give the software a library of faces to choose from. All in all, we had about half a dozen photos. Once we had the photos, we took turns to pose in front of the camera to see how the facial recognition engine worked in practise.

All in all, it wasn’t too bad at recognising a full face image, getting it right probably 3 out of 4 times. The trouble was the time the processing took. If you were pointing your camera at a crowd of people trying to pick out a known felon, your crowd would be half a mile down the road before the software had made it through half the crowd. The processing power simply wasn’t enough back then.

I assume that with the increase in processing power in the last 15 years, such software is viable these days and in common usage in airports and at large stadium events around the world. Even though it all sounds a bit big brother, I think it’s a good thing if it improves the safety of the general populace.

I just wish they would hurry up and install facial recognition into my spectacles so that I might be able to recognise someone other than my optician.

Beam me up Scotty!


Abstract icon of Enterprise NX-01 of Star Trek...

Abstract icon of Enterprise NX-01 of Star Trek Enterprise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the big comfy armchair that was BP, my second employer “Pentyre” was more like a roller coaster. After the comfort of a blue chip company, I was brought down to Earth with a bump when I was summoned in to an all staff meeting the week after I joined. The entire company easily fitted into a small room. I was one of 7 software developers. The MD explained that a customer had reneged on a bill and the company was in real trouble. Some of the directors were going to forego salary for a couple of months and hopefully, everything was going to be OK. Had I made the mistake of my life ?

I very nearly ended up missing out on working at Pentyre altogether. I had already accepted a job with another company, but there was a recruitment consultant who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. He insisted I visit Pentyre to see what they had to offer. So after work one evening, I turned up outside their offices for an interview. First appearances weren’t too promising – a converted factory with a tatty sign outside. I was shown up the stairs into a demonstration suite. There were various devices around the place; pagers, phones, cameras, alarms, flashing lights.

I was interviewed by the MD himself. An unassuming middle aged man called Malcolm, impeccably dressed, short with wispy white hair. He gave me the potted history of the company, which didn’t take long. After a long career in IBM, he had taken his terms and used his severance money to start up the company. He then took me through a demonstration of what their software could do. It was a dazzling display as he made the various devices do their stuff with just a click with his mouse. The inner geek in me was hooked.

He then took me on a tour of the building. At the back of the building was an area that looked a bit like Q’s workshop out of the Bond movies. There were machines everywhere in various states of assembly. On the benches there were oscilloscopes and multimeters. Propped up against one wall was something called a protocol analyser. The last time I had heard of anything like it was during an episode of Star Trek. Dominating the middle of the room was a train set. I looked at Malcolm quizzically and he nonchalantly explained that the reason it was there was to test the train radio system they were developing for the London underground.

I was mesmerised. I simply had to work for this company. As we went back up the stairs to talk turkey, it was obvious I was hooked. Malcolm asked what it would take for me to go and work there. A brief exchange later, the deal was done. I started work there a few days later.

It was an amazing place to work. The nice thing about working as part of a small company is that every single person really makes a difference. Every few months or so, there was a new assignment – usually involving some brand new technology. My first job was all about pagers. Back then, if you had a large site, the only way to keep in touch with your workforce was to give them a pager. I also developed a building management system, some modelling software for a steelworks and CCTV systems for prisons and nuclear reactors.

My time at Pentyre taught me the power of small teams working together without constraints. The productivity was amazing. There was no demarcation; you sold, designed, built, tested, installed and supported every bit of software that went out the door. Not all the technology was all it was cracked up to be. We worked on a project to detect faces in crowds. I couldn’t get the face recognition software to recognise me standing perfectly still at less than two paces. Voice recognition was similarly inaccurate being unable to determine the difference between “Chicken Tikka Massala” and “Land Rover” even when spoken slowly and deliberately.

The technology failure that has tickled me to this day was DCOM. Launched with some fanfare, DCOM (or Distributed Component Object Model) was Microsoft’s attempt at a computing model for distributed computing. In order to test it, we set up two machines. On the first, we coded a simple button with the label “Sausage” which would then send a message to the second machine which would respond with the on screen message “sizzle”. It was the simplest test imaginable and we were used to getting such things working.

Even so, after a whole morning of messing about with various different settings, we simply couldn’t get it to work. Frustrated, we went off to lunch. When we returned – there was the “sizzle” message on the second machine – we obviously hadn’t left it long enough!