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The Programs Behind Facial Recognition

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Edison, NJ

Nowadays, we hear about facial recognition and how you can unlock your phone with your face. This seems like one of the feats in human history that can never truly be explained, like the moon landing or the creation of supersonic jets. However, when you boil down the complicated tech talk and complex words like, “biometrics”, and, “computers”, facial recognition is very easy to comprehend and understand.

Before we can go over how facial recognition functions, we first have to understand how facial recognition has evolved and developed. The beginnings of facial recognition start in the Panoramic Research Facility in the 1960s, with three researchers: Woody Bledsoe, Helen Chan Wolf, and Charles Bisson. They were developing a computer that could recognize the faces of humans. This early computer wasn’t what we think of today as facial recognition, as it could only recognize human faces if the details of the face were given to the computer. The idea was picked up by DARPA, which was instrumental in creating the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, in 1993 to create the program, FERET, which was used mainly for security and law enforcement purposes.

creator, inventor, woody
Woody Bledsoe, the creator of facial recognition

Future algorithms allowed the software to work for faces that were shown on video, and not just photographs. Eventually, FaceID was made to allow iPhone users to unlock their phones with their faces. The program remembers the face of the user, and once the phone detects the same face in the person using the phone, the phone will unlock. But then comes the question of how facial recognition works.

Facial recognition uses biometric technology to detect a person and map out their face. Biometrics is a fancy word for the different measurements and details on a human face, and the computer uses these details and measurements to compare to faces in the computer’s database. This will allow the computer to determine who the person is based on the database of faces, and in the case of FaceID, this will allow the phone to determine if it should unlock the phone if the person’s face is in the database.

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An image displaying facial recognition in security cameras

Like any system that was initially designed for use in law enforcement, facial recognition has been seen as a breach of privacy, as it involves recording the faces of people who do not wish to be recorded. However, this is only the case for security cameras that use facial recognition to identify the details and the identity of individuals. On rare occasions, it can result in a false negative, where a person’s face is mistaken for the face of another person, which is very unfortunate if the specific technology is being used in a police investigation.

Despite the breach of privacy and the extremely rare chance of a false negative, facial recognition is still popular amongst law enforcement, citizens that want a bit of privacy, and even shops. That’s right, stores in China are replacing normal in-person purchases with facial recognition. All you have to do is show your face to the screen when you are going to pay, and the charges will automatically be placed onto your bank account.

china, pay, shopping, chinese shop
A woman using facial recognition to pay at a Chinese shop

As previously stated, once you take away all of the fancy and rather complicated language, the concept of facial recognition starts to make more sense. After all, it’s just a system that measures your face and matches it to other faces. Despite the horrifying prospect of a privacy breach and false negatives, facial recognition is still a favorable technology for people that wish to provide themselves with an extra level of security, as well as for people that wish to identify individuals through nothing but the person's face.

If you want to learn more about how certain technologies work, check out more articles from STEM-E!

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