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Everything You Need to Know about Apple's Facial Recognition Software

Apple introduced its facial recognition software a couple of years ago but just saying that doesn't really mean anything unless you work in a related field or read trade journals. What is facial recognition software? Does it do anything for you? How does it work? Should you use it? We got curious about all the hype and decided to look into Face ID, and we learned so much about this intriguing tech that we just had to share.

What does Face ID do, and how does it work? You've probably seen a few spy movies in your lifetime. So, even if you aren't into tech gadgets, you'll have seen someone unlock things with a fingerprint, a voice command or even a scan of their eye. Little girls diaries have used the voice recognition technology for years, and in the last decade, it's gotten more popular to use a fingerprint to unlock devices. Face ID (AKA Facial Recognition Software) is the next logical progression. It scans your face, or rather the front of your head, with a grid of infrared dots to identify you before unlocking your device.

Infrared Dots

There are two parts or 'modules' involved in the process. The first one projects the dots. They are invisible and should not be harmful to your eyes or skin. These dots are then 'read' by the second module which uses the information from where they land to make a sort of topographical map. It gets a 3D image of your face to compare to what it has on file. This technology is sufficiently advanced that it won't be confused if, for example, you have to wear an eye patch for a while because of damage. In the same way, fingerprint analysis relies on a number of specific identifying features, the infrared dot grid, with 30,000 points of reference (dots) identifies so many different features that even partially covered face can still be identified accurately. Men worried about shaving a beard will also be recognizable, though the phone might ask for a manual unlock a couple of times before it accepts the change as valid. From makeup to wrinkles, the system will recognize you. The only likely hiccup would be for very young users, those under 13 years old or so may have rapid face changes.  We aren't sure what that might mean in case of damage like swelling.

"True Depth" Camera

In order to project and read the thirty thousand infrared dots, Apple created the 7-megapixel True Depth Camera. In addition to the regular selfie camera, it has integrated a dedicated camera just for reading the infrared. Sensing and recording depth is not an easy trick, so to develop the technology, Apple purchased PrimeSense, the company that developed the Kinect system. In addition to emitting and reading dots of light, the True Depth Camera has the ability to sense proximity for activation. An added flood illuminator likely helps the camera in low light. Beyond this, the True Depth Camera even incorporates the ability to distinguish textures. This means for example that if a person has a marble bust of their head and face, you couldn't use that statue to unlock their devices because the stone will not read as human skin.

A11 Bionic Chip

This is Apples' new processor chip, and it powers the entire device. This stunningly powerful piece of technology builds on the previous A10 Fusion technology that used four processor cores and ramps up the power by using six. The four high-efficiency cores are 70% better than the ones in previous models sporting the A10 chip. The remaining two cores are high-performance and run 25% faster than the already impressive A10s. This means the latest generation of iPhones is capable of processing a massive amount of data compared to any model that has come out previously. This chip is an industry-leading technology.

Custom Graphics Processor

Previous iterations of Apple products all sported Imagination Technologies graphics processors. Apple had previously mentioned that they were considering moving to an in-house version and they have finally done so with the latest generation. What that means from a practical point of view is a 30% increase in performance over the A10 models. Graphics are sharper by almost a third. Better graphics means more detailed cameras and helps allow facial recognition technology to be not just functional but also much more accurate. That translates to increased security for the Face ID system.

Apple Neural Engine

There's a whole lot of complicated tach talk behind what this is and what it does, we're going to ride right past all that and break it down as simply and efficiently as possible. A regular processor can only adapt within a limited pre-programmed window. When you bring in an AI like the Apple Neural Engine, it gives your device the ability to prioritize tasks and allocate power better. Overall what it means for facial recognition is that it's improving the way your device handles it. Apple is so sure the combination of their Neural Engine, Graphics Processor, A11 Bionic Chip, and True Depth Camera makes facial recognition accurate that they are even integrating it into payment systems. You will be able to confirm payments with a scan of your face.

What's the Use

Beyond the obvious, unlocking your phone or iPad, what else is Facial Recognition Software right for? Naturally, you might have guessed that facial recognition can be used to unlock other types of locks. Getting into bank vaults and even private residences using facial recognition is becoming easier to integrate as the IoT devices become more pervasive so that you can look forward to smart home integrations. You'll soon be able to do things like access your home security system or car with facial recognition. As for right now, we've found several ways Facial Recognition Software is being used every day.

  • Identify Targets - When you ask Facebook to find pictures of someone in an unsorted photo album, that's facial recognition. Police and forensics specialists can use FaceID to spot criminals or identify a body. It may be a little creepy, but it's also beneficial to keep officers safe and help solve crimes.
  • Prevent Theft - From the bathrooms of China where toilet paper theft is apparently a huge problem to local shopping, the ability to identify faces helps to prevent theft before it happens by alerting security when someone with a history of stealing from that location enters. It will also allow the identification of suspects after a crime has been committed.
  • Track Attendance - Facial recognition can be used to give more accurate ideas of attendance. Churches, sporting events, schools, and airports all benefit from using this system. It also provides an additional layer of protection by identifying anyone who's out of place. This means identifying potential threats and criminals as well as legitimate attendees.
  • Find Missing People (and Pets) - This is pretty self-explanatory, a camera with facial recognition can be used to track down anyone, including animals, that are in the database. This will help law enforcement find lost children among other uses.
  • Advertise Better - Tesco is already planning to apply facial recognition at their gas pumps. This will allow the facial recognition programs to make an educated guess at people's gender and age which in turn will enable them to use the display screens to target advertising. Consumers will get ads for products they might want, and the advertisers will have a more effective system for getting their products in front of the right audience.
  • Help the Blind - Perhaps our favorite use for this tech comes from a very unexpected place. Listerine has developed a phone app to help the blind know when someone smiles at them. Perhaps you've never considered this, but it makes a huge difference to be able to read someone's facial expressions. This unique application lets people who wouldn't otherwise be aware of it know when someone is giving them a grin. Bringing a little joy into the world may not be the sort of change you'd expect from cutting edge innovations like FaceID, but we think it's incredible, and it certainly put a smile on our faces.
  • Nifty Special Effects - Remember all those pictures of face-swapped kids and pets? They're hilarious, but they also use facial recognition. The same applies to all those silly filters that give you sunglasses or a beard on your messenger program. The camera has to identify the location of your face, and it's features to perform these functions.

It's Not Perfect, and It's a Little Bit Creepy

It all sounds great, except for the part where it maybe reminds us a little too much of Orwell's 1984, or The Giver, or... all the other dystopian books where people are continuously monitored. The reality is that anyplace you're in public, the government has the legal right to add surveillance. For that matter so do private individuals and businesses. Facial recognition can be used to track your movements. Whether or not this should be allowed is, and has always been, a hot button issue. The ACLU argues that video surveillance hasn't been proven effective, but we don't yet know how or if facial recognition will change that.

Can You Fool Apple's Facial Recognition?

The short answer is yes, but it's incredibly tricky and not very likely to work. People have tried to fool the camera with pictures and videos. It doesn't work because the camera has unprecedented depth perception and neither a video screen nor a photo has the correct texture to be a person's face even if it 'looks' like them. We couldn't find any evidence that shows whether a 3D TV might work, nor has anyone so far tested a hologram. We aren't sure if the hologram would even reflect the infrared dot, they might pass through it.

There are some unfortunate circumstances where facial recognition can fail and let another user get into your device. The good news is that they are rare exceptions. If you had a doppelganger, a person you aren't related to who is identical to you, then they'd probably fool the facial recognition program. To be fair to Apple, their system is designed to recognize various facial movements/gestures, so as the system gets more complex it will likely reach a point where someone's micro expressions differ enough from yours to keep them out, but it's not there just yet.

Other ways to defeat the system exist, though it's one in a million that someone can pick up your phone and unlock it, which is still more accurate than a fingerprint ID. Identical twins can open each other's phones. Remarkably similar children can occasionally open a parent's phone. This quirk is probably because of the adaptation for aging skin that allows the phone to recognize you with more wrinkles as you age. 3d printed heads can also apparently work because of the level of texture detail, but it's not terribly likely that your average phone thief will have a scan of your head to print a model from.

That Darn Hat

There is just one other notable issue, and this one might present more of an issue for Apple's Facial Recognition Program. Some genius has gone and invented a hat that fools facial recognition by projecting lasers onto your face to deceive the system. It's possible this hat could let people bypass surveillance and even impersonate others.

Final Thoughts

We understand that the technology isn't perfect, but it sure seems like an accurate facial recognition scan is harder to fake than it is to hack a password. Given the vast leaps Apple has made and the fact that the dangers are known, we think this tech is incredible and useful. Sure, if you have kids who are dead ringers or a very identical twin, then this is probably the wrong solution for you. Use your fingerprint instead. If you worry, then use a device that requires two forms of authentication to open. In general though, unless you are the type of high powered political or business entity who worries about foreign hackers printing a perfect replica of your face like they would in a Mission Impossible sequel, then you should be fine using this brilliant advance in technology.

Lily Wordsmith

Written by Lily Wordsmith

Lily Wordsmith is a freelance writer who has had a love affair with the written word for decades. You can find her writing blog posts and articles while sitting under a tree at the local park watching her kids play, or typing away on her tablet in line at the DMV. In addition to her freelance career, she is pursuing ebook writing with an ever-growing repertoire of witty ebooks to her name. Her diversity is boundless, and she has written about everything from astrobotany to zookeepers. Her real passions are her family, baking desserts and all things luxe.

Read more posts by Lily Wordsmith

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