Last week brought reports that the European Union is considering a three- to five-year moratorium on face recognition in public places. Face recognition is a problematic technology with significant potential for misuse, and I celebrate the EU’s effort to protect human rights and civil society. But the blunt instrument of a long moratorium is a terrible idea.
Five years is an eternity in AI, and implementing this proposal would all but guarantee that EU teams fall behind their colleagues in the U.S., China, and other nations.
Contrary to popular belief, face recognition is not a solved problem. Although many teams have achieved good performance on face recognition benchmarks such as LFW, the technology still has a long way to go. Open source software makes it easy to recognize faces from a front-facing still image, but a number of hard problems remain to be
solved, including multi-camera tracking, re-identification (when someone exits the frame and then re-enters), robustness to occasional camera outages, and automatic multi-camera calibration. Such capabilities will advance significantly in the next few years.
Countries that have the foundation to develop this technology will pull ahead of those that don’t. It would be ironic if the EU, having slowed its own work on face recognition, were to end up having to license it from American and Chinese companies.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains one of the most inspirational documents I have ever read. I won’t pretend that forming good regulations is easy; it is hard because it entails hard tradeoffs. We must make sure that privacy-respecting societies don’t fall behind in technology development precisely because of those laudable values. Instead of hobbling them, we must enable them to leap ahead in a way that propagates those values.