On The Cusp Of 1-to-1, Face-To-Face

A story in The Wall Street Journal this week took my breath away. “Police Want to Send AI Into the Street” was about law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. looking to deploy AI in the cloud behind body cameras to instantly recognize criminal suspects anywhere, any time, always on.

I found this breathtaking because it implies the velocity of AI development is far faster than even I could have imagined -- and I’m a self-proclaimed, biased, AI-advocating writer-nerd.

It also implies that marketers will have the power to know and directly address every individual in the U.S. far sooner than they can imagine.

First, understand what the nation’s police departments are buying. We’ve all seen the crime shows in which the detective’s trusty tech assistant matches a photo or a face from a street surveillance camera to a person in a huge government database. This has been going on for years. But it takes time and human operators — and results are reviewed by a panel of experts to confirm the match before any actions, including arrests, are taken.

According to the Journal, “The new software uses an algorithm to tell an officer on the spot, through a body camera or a video surveillance camera, that it has found a suspect. The officer could then make a decision of whether to stop the suspect or take some other action.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the tech, you may not realize what a leap it is to have enough smarts (and speed) to fully automate the process of instantly recognizing some random person on the street and whispering the info into an officer’s ear.

Some of you may recall hearing last summer about the four Chinese provinces using facial recognition AI to identify and publicly shame jaywalkers — but that’s not done in real time, and they’re still using human officers to confirm the ID.

Some, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are objecting to the U.S. plans on invasion-of-privacy grounds. And who can blame them, when even the chief scientist of a start-up working on the technology is quoted in the article calling it “creepy and a bit big brother-y”?

Uh-oh. They’re really not going to like the rest of this column.

The article put me in mind of a prescient report on cloud computing from the tech thought leaders at Ernst & Young that I read way, way back in early 2011. In it, Paul Chabot, an EY IT strategy consultant, imagines a near future in which “I could scan the horizon through my mobile phone’s camera and see information overlaid on the image of my surroundings. What businesses are located in the building I’m walking past? … Is one of my friends there? Or, I can point my phone at someone passing by. The cloud does the image recognition and pulls all the information from their Facebook profile and shares with me who that person is.”

Unlike the brouhaha over Facebook allegedly allowing illicit sharing of private data, our images are pretty much all accessible in public databases. Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram… the list goes on and on. If you doubt me, just do an image search on yourself, or any random friend.

At the speed instantaneous facial recognition technology is developing, this year the police will have it, next year marketers will have it, and the year after that it will be in the hands of every nine-year-old kid.

At that point, it’ll be simple, technically, and perfectly legal (under current U.S. law) to put together a system to scan those public databases, correlate images to profile information, and serve up detailed understanding of who someone is, along with their rational preferences and emotional triggers. This is scary-creepy science fiction stuff, sure. But as I just said, it will also be in your hands and everyone else’s in a couple years.

What will you do with such insights? Are marketers ready -- professionally, morally, ethically?

Be very afraid.

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