A tech startup is making headlines this month for its controversial facial recognition software. Could this be the start of a cyberpunk dystopia?
Clearview AI is a facial recognition firm partnering with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and local police forces across the United States. The software allegedly matches photos of individuals to their social media profiles and could theoretically aid in solving crimes.
However, many are concerned that startups like Clearview AI are propelling us towards a cyberpunk dystopia.
Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, which emerged in the 1960s, that takes place in a dystopian futuristic setting, often depicting a juxtaposition between advanced technology with a gritty, low quality of life. Cyberpunk frequently features societies plagued with corruption and authoritarian control.
In many cyberpunk worlds, corporate conglomerates wield political power, humans are much more individualistic and disconnected, and the characters live in hyper-urbanised cityscapes not dissimilar to Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York City. Many cyberpunk stories ponder the ethical implications of advanced technology, while others consider the disastrous, apocalyptic possibilities. While the genre is epitomised by the 1968 Phillip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, there are many famous examples, like Blade Runner, Elysium, Ex Machina, The Matrix, Tron, Robocop, Ghost in the Shell, Alita, Wall-E, Ready Player One, I, Robot, Mr. Robot, Westworld, etc.
While Dick’s novel was an interesting thought experiment for a futuristic world, over fifty years have now passed and these terrifying stories are very applicable to today’s world. Virtual reality is increasingly common with the rise of virtual reality video games. Voice recognition technology isn’t something we question anymore with the rise of smart assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. Facial recognition is rapidly growing, in use by not just law enforcement, but also apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Faceapp.
So just how common is facial recognition?
According to a 2016 report by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, 117 million Americans are in a law enforcement face recognition network (half the population). In the UK in 2017, the biometrics commissioner confirmed over 20 million facial images in the database (nearly one-third of the population). Both of these statistics represent data from several years ago, and these numbers may have increased. Both countries also track images not just of criminals, but law-abiding citizens as well. Additionally, facial recognition is not as accurate as fingerprinting, and is therefore more dangerous. The inaccuracy could lead to crimes being pinned on innocent people.
Facial recognition technology has also been shown to exhibit racial bias. A report by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, a branch of the Commerce Department, published a report last month reporting that the face recognition algorithms they studied were up to 100 times more likely to confuse two different non-white people, with Asian, Native American, and black people the most likely to be misidentified. While governments are growing increasingly powerful, many are concerned about how this technology will affect privacy and justice. As put by Guardian reporter Hannah Devlin: “As the cameras proliferate, who’s watching the watchers?”
Concerns about an impending cyberpunk dystopia are only exacerbated when considering the mounting tension between social classes as wealth inequality soars. Last year in the UK, the top ten per cent reportedly owned half the nation’s wealth, and, according to a 2018 Social Metrics Commission report, 22 per cent of the UK population live in poverty. Additionally, massive conglomerates like Disney, Comcast, Shell, BP, Bertelsmann, etc. are alarmingly similar to those in cyberpunk novels and films. If our society’s political and social unrest continues alongside the growing, unchecked power of both government and corporate entities, we may be in for a real, genuine cyberpunk era.
Luckily, there are already activists coming up with ways to protect ourselves in a cyberpunk dystopia. Adam Harvey, a student at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, designed face paint patterns that resemble pixels and would confuse facial recognition algorithms. Isao Echizen associate professor at The National Institute of Informatics in Tokyo designed the “privacy visor” that confuses facial recognition software by emitting near-infrared lights, but won’t adversely affect the wearer’s vision or disguise their face from human perception. Many other anti-surveillance inventions have surfaced, coming in the form of specially designed masks, hoods, and headscarves.
So, is it too late for us? Are we already living in the cyberpunk dystopia of science fiction? If we’re not there yet, we are barrelling towards it fast. Consider how far technology has come in just the past 20 years. The Nokia became the flip phone. The flip phone became the smartphone. The smartphone introduced virtual assistants. Siri on our phones led to Alexa in our homes. We can only guess where advancements in technology will take us in the next 20 years.
In the blink of an eye, the cyberpunk era will be upon us.