Can facial recognition unlock the phone while wearing a mask?

According to the Russian satellite news agency reported on March 11, many developers of face recognition systems are researching new algorithms, hoping to recognize faces under medical mask

A woman, wearing a face mask, looks at her phone in Chinatown in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 25, 2020. REUTERS/Rengim Mutevellioglu - RC29NE9SYPP9

Wearing a face mask becomes perfectly normal in response to a viral respiratory infection epidemic. In fact, with a risk of becoming infected anytime, anyplace – be it in a public transport, in the theater, in the store or at a dinner party – a face mask is gradually moving into the category of life-sustaining items, such as clothes. Leaving the house in the midst of an epidemic without a face mask can be translated as bad form. In contrast, wearing a face mask is seen as a sign of self-preservation and concern for the health and safety of others around you. And we are not aiming at covering our faces here in doing so – that’s just a side effect. Well, sort of.

Does not this make you wonder what might the future of recognition technologies look like, when everybody is wearing a mask that covers a large part of their faces? In the “Internet of everything” era, face recognition systems become if not the core, but a very important element of public safety, target marketing, and social interactions in general. They are now integral parts of city infrastructure — security cameras are hidden in the areas where you won’t even suspect them to be, such as: streets, airports, and grocery stores, hotels, or sports stadiums. They are there not only to prevent crime by tracking unsavory characters, but also to contribute to effectiveness of targeted sales and advertising, through “knowing-your-customer”. It seems like KYC has taken somewhat more literal meaning.

For most face recognition algorithms to work, the person has to be barefaced, because those algorithms evaluate the face “as a whole”. When the face recognition system spots a medical mask or respirator on the human face, it will most likely respond with a “face is covered”, and refuse further recognition attempts. The chance of recognition failure is even higher in cases where there are some decorative elements on the mask, such as prints or texture: could be an abstract pattern, or a jaw, or Darth Vader’s helmet. Clearly, the scenario where every passerby in the city wears a face mask is not anticipated by the developers during systems testing, the described implications therefore aren’t prevented. However, such a scenario does not seem to sound that surprising anymore.

Face recognition systems will quite obviously become useless in case the majority of people start protecting themselves with a face mask — unless we see some major improvements in the algorithms of those systems, of course. Not only that; relying on them could be dangerous, since the percentage of false positives might increase sharply, which will inevitably lead to malfunctions.

Recognition technologies will certainly be further developed, algorithms will change, and it is conceivable that we will soon witness the emergence of a solution that will be able to provide recognition results at a fairly acceptable standard with only uncovered part of the face. Those results could be then taken into account in the decision making. As of now, the flow of information on the coronavirus epidemic is not only leading to the collapse of cross-border online trade, but it has also significantly affected those sectors which have just started getting accustomed to face recognition systems, and the development of face recognition technology itself.

According to the Russian satellite news agency reported on March 11, many developers of facial recognition systems are researching new algorithms, hoping to recognize faces under medical masks.

“This is a difficult problem for most face recognition algorithms,” Alexander Minin, general manager of Russian face recognition technology developer N-Tech.Lab, told Satellite News Agency. “Some of the industry leaders are urgently upgrading algorithms. Strive to come up with a solution that will ensure recognition (facial features) even when the face is mostly obscured. “

Minin said that their goal is to be able to identify people regardless of lighting and weather conditions, and whether or not the identified person looks at the camera. At present, N-Tech.Lab’s technology can recognize human faces even if they are covered 40% by masks, motorcycle helmets, and complicated headwear.

A Chinese company says it has developed the country’s first facial recognition technology that can identify people when they are wearing a mask, as most are these days because of the coronavirus, and help in the fight against the disease. China employs some of the world’s most sophisticated systems of electronic surveillance, including facial recognition.

But the coronavirus, which emerged in Hubei province late last year, has resulted in almost everyone wearing a surgical mask outdoors in the hope of warding off the virus – posing a particular problem for surveillance.

Now Hanwang Technology, which also goes by the English name Hanvon, said it has come up technology that can successfully recognise people even when they are wearing masks.

“If connected to a temperature sensor, it can measure body temperature while identifying the person’s name, and then the system would process the result, say, if it detects a temperature over 38 degrees,” Hanwang Vice President Huang Lei said in an interview.

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