According to a report from Reuters, “Intel is counting on facial-recognition technology for targeted ads” that “doesn’t identify specific people, but it could provide general data about viewers’ gender or whether they’re adults or children to help target advertising.”
So, in case this isn’t clear, Intel is developing a set top box with a camera in it, pointed at you, the viewer. The video signal is then analyzed by facial recognition software running on the set top box, which then guesses your age, gender, and possibly other identifying markers to best customize your ad-viewing experience.
Sounds great, right?
Consider the following video from 2009 concerning the tracking feature of an HP Webcam and its failure to recognize black faces.
And what about the Nikon cameras that reliably mistake Asian faces for blinking?
Is it really that smart of a bet to assume that facial recognition is going to accurately recognize the people in front of it?
In the very near future, your cable box will insult your friend who has dwarfism by recommending that they ask their parents to take them to Toys R’ Us, and your homely-but-nice sister-in-law will be told which razor blade gives a man the smoothest shave.
But let’s assume the facial recognition works flawlessly, how much do you really want your TV making assumptions about you based on your appearance? I’m a white man in my late 20s, so obviously I should get ads for beer, razors, Rogaine, and tax preparation services. You’d never think about serving me an ad for toys that a little girl would like, right? But what about the fact that I have nieces? That’s not something you can tell just by looking at me, and it’s not something I necessarily want advertisers digging into.
Most importantly, let’s get back to the fact that you need a camera pointing into your living room to make the system work. Sure, the video signal isn’s supposed to be fed anywhere other than to the box’s internal computer. Ideally, no human being would be looking at you. But is there any less an invasion of privacy if it’s a computer watching you rather than a human?
Personally, I don’t crave a more personalized ad-viewing experience bad enough to let a security device watch me in my own home, and I doubt many other consumers would either. The only way I can imagine something like this being implemented would be if it were tied into an existing piece of gaming hardware, like say, the Xbox Kinect.
So you turn on the Kinect, ready to use your body as a controller for some dancing game, and before you know it, the advertisements in the virtual club are customized to who the game thinks you are. Because of your graying hair, slouching posture, and choice to play on beginner’s difficulty, the bar is suddenly emblazoned in ads for AARP and viagra. The fact that a senior citizen is in a virtual dance club in the first place causes the demographic profiling algorithm to go all “DOES NOT COMPUTE” and start smoking while you wonder if maybe you ought to start kicking these damn solicitor robots off your lawn.