Recognizing Fido’s face digitally

By Bill Colvard - [email protected]

Facial recognition technology is kind of creepy if you ask me. Just because a computer can mistake one face for another much, much faster than a human being can confuse them doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to encourage computers to do so.

I can imagine a less-than-bright future where I might find myself being hauled down to the police station for sticking up a liquor store because some computer thinks I’m a ringer for the geezer who actually tried to do it. Human eyewitnesses are unreliable enough. Must we endure non-human ones?

Why can’t computers stick with things they’re actually good at, like algorithms, which humans can’t do because we don’t know what they are, and stick with manipulating photo images rather than trying to recognize faces on those images?

For a while now, Google Photos has been quietly using facial recognition to sort photos according to who is in them. And I fiddle around with that feature quite a bit. Not because it’s useful, but to point and laugh at how totally useless it can be.

For one thing, the app has decided one of my friends is the same person as Joanna Lumley, the British actress who plays Patsy Stone on “Absolutely Fabulous.” I don’t know Ms. Lumley in real life but that doesn’t stop me from having quite a few pictures of her mixed in with my personal photos. Not in a stalkerish way, but because nothing says “Happy Birthday” to a bestie like an AbFab meme.

Well, Google has my friend and Lumley lumped in together as the same person. So I chuckle at that silliness, wondering if my friend would find the confusion flattering, and then I notice that they do look a lot alike. Very different people but their facial structure is remarkably similar which I had never noticed before. Maybe Google isn’t as bad at this as I originally thought.

Except that they are. Along with “thinking” two people are the same person, Google has four separate identities for my granddaughter.

But aside from her, Google Photos seems to feel exactly like me as far as babies are concerned. I am convinced all babies — aside from my own grandchildren, of course — look just alike. And what they look just like are decrepit old, bald, toothless men with freakishly soft skin.

And sure enough, there is a folder with a whole bunch of leftover babies tossed in together, like the artificial intelligence just threw its imaginary hands up in the air and cried “uncle,” sweeping all the miscellaneous babies aside.

One might be forgiven for thinking that if Google is having so much trouble with babies and hasn’t even perfected identifying stylish women of a certain age, they might work on those issues before moving on to add entire species to the number of faces they can’t successfully recognize.

But in fact, that’s exactly what they have done. Google announced in a blog post on Oct. 16 that Google Photos will now be able to identify dogs and cats. And I don’t mean they can identify a dog as a dog or a cat as a cat. They’ve been able to do that for a while, although a couple of dog breeds seem to slip under the cat radar more often than the coders would probably like.

No, supposedly Google Photos can now recognize the face of a particular pooch. Or kitty. If this is true, no longer will I need to wade through a pile of “dog” photos when I want to see my sweet little Tango. I could just wade through a somewhat smaller stash of “chihuahua” photos, as Google photos now recognizes and differentiates between different breeds. And that feature does in fact work. I tried it.

But I should also be able to tag Tango by name and sort out pictures of him. But since I can’t get the app to let me tag him, I haven’t been able to test that feature out. So, I don’t yet know if it’s harder to tell one chihuahua from another than it is to tell one baby from another.

But whether it works or not, it still boggles my mind that a major technology company would spend untold bucks on a project like this. Just think what it says about us.

First off, it says we love our little Fidos and Fluffies so much we want even artificial intelligence to recognize how special and unique they are. And I can’t help but go back to this but what would make a publicly traded company with shareholders to which it must answer invest gazillions of dollars developing technology that can recognize one golden retriever from another one? Because it is just that important?

And while that question is being pondered, it brings up another one. Will the facial recognition thingie have as much trouble with puppies as it does with babies? They’re just as cute, and like babies, they do all kind of look alike.

Of course, after Google has sorted Spot out from all the other Spot lookalikes, you will have the option to make a slideshow of your pics or perhaps put together a Photobook, as Google is calling it, which will be made available to you at the low, low price of $19.99. So, yes, Google has found a way to monetize this cutting-edge technology. They’re going to sell photo albums — relics of the analog past so unfamiliar to anyone under the age of 40, Google is hoping young folks will think they’re new. Perhaps no one at Google is over 40 and they don’t know they didn’t invent the photo album.

If Photobooks tank as magnificently as Google Glass did not long ago, I’d love to hear those whippersnappers explaining to shareholders. “Dude, can’t believe the world is not ready for photo albums. Who’da thunk it?”

The mind reels.

By Bill Colvard

[email protected]

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

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