Welcome to I Was There When, a new oral history project from the In Machines We Trust podcast. It features stories of how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and computing happened, as told by the people who witnessed them. In this first episode, we meet Joseph Atick— who helped create the first commercially viable face recognition system.
This episode was produced by Jennifer Strong, Anthony Green and Emma Cillekens with help from Lindsay Muscato. It’s edited by Michael Reilly and Mat Honan. It’s mixed by Garret Lang, with sound design and music by Jacob Gorski.
Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Strong, host of In Machines We Trust.
I want to tell you about something we’ve been working on for a little while behind the scenes here.
It’s called I Was There When.
It’s an oral history project featuring the stories of how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and computing happened… as told by the people who witnessed them.
Joseph Atick: And as I entered the room, it spotted my face, extracted it from the background and it pronounced: “I see Joseph” and that was the moment where the hair on the back… I felt like something had happened. We were a witness.
Jennifer: We’re kicking things off with a man who helped create the first facial recognition system that was commercially viable… back in the ‘90s…
I am Joseph Atick. Today, I’m the executive chairman of ID for Africa, a humanitarian organization that focuses on giving people in Africa a digital identity so they can access services and exercise their rights. But I have not always been in the humanitarian field. After I received my PhD in mathematics, together with my collaborators made some fundamental breakthroughs, which led to the first commercially viable face recognition. That’s why people refer to me as a founding father of face recognition and the biometric industry. The algorithm for how a human brain would recognize familiar faces became clear while we were doing research, mathematical research, while I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. But it was far from having an idea of how you would implement such a thing.
It was a long period of months of programming and failure and programming and failure. And one night, early morning, actually, we had just finalized a version of the algorithm. We submitted the source code for compilation in order to get a run code. And we stepped out, I stepped out to go to the washroom. And then when I stepped back into the room and the source code had been compiled by the machine and had returned. And usually after you compile it runs it automatically, and as I entered the room, it spotted a human moving into the room and it spotted my face, extracted it from the background and it pronounced: “I see Joseph.” and that was the moment where the hair on the back—I felt like something had happened. We were a witness. And I started to call on the other people who were still in the lab and each one of them they would come into the room.
And it would say, “I see Norman. I would see Paul, I would see Joseph.” And we would sort of take turns running around the room just to see how many it can spot in the room. It was, it was a moment of truth where I would say several years of work finally led to a breakthrough, even though theoretically, there wasn’t any additional breakthrough required. Just the fact that we figured out how to implement it and finally saw that capability in action was very, very rewarding and satisfying. We had developed a team which is more of a development team, not a research team, which was focused on putting all of those capabilities into a PC platform. And that was the birth, really the birth of commercial face recognition, I would put it, on 1994.
My concern started very quickly. I saw a future where there was no place to hide with the proliferation of cameras everywhere and the commoditization of computers and the processing abilities of computers becoming better and better. And so in 1998, I lobbied the industry and I said, we need to put together principles for responsible use. And I felt good for a while, because I felt we have gotten it right. I felt we’ve put in place a responsible use code to be followed by whatever is the implementation. However, that code did not live the test of time. And the reason behind it is we did not anticipate the emergence of social media. Basically, at the time when we established the code in 1998, we said the most important element in a face recognition system was the tagged database of known people. We said, if I’m not in the database, the system will be blind.
And it was difficult to build the database. At most we could build thousand 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 because each image had to be scanned and had to be entered by hand—the world that we live in today, we are now in a regime where we have allowed the beast out of the bag by feeding it billions of faces and helping it by tagging ourselves. Um, we are now in a world where any hope of controlling and requiring everybody to be responsible in their use of face recognition is difficult. And at the same time, there is no shortage of known faces on the internet because you can just scrape, as has happened recently by some companies. And so I began to panic in 2011, and I wrote an op-ed article saying it is time to press the panic button because the world is heading in a direction where face recognition is going to be omnipresent and faces are going to be everywhere available in databases.
And at the time people said I was an alarmist, but today they’re realizing that it’s exactly what’s happening today. And so where do we go from here? I’ve been lobbying for legislation. I’ve been lobbying for legal frameworks that make it a liability for you to use somebody’s face without their consent. And so it’s no longer a technological issue. We cannot contain this powerful technology through technological means. There has to be some sort of legal frameworks. We cannot allow the technology to go too much ahead of us. Ahead of our values, ahead of what we think is acceptable.
The issue of consent continues to be one of the most difficult and challenging matters when it deals with technology, just giving somebody notice does not mean that it’s enough. To me consent has to be informed. They have to understand the consequences of what it means. And not just to say, well, we put a sign up and this was enough. We told people, and if they did not want to, they could have gone anywhere.
And I also find that there is, it is so easy to get seduced by flashy technological features that might give us a short-term advantage in our lives. And then down the line, we recognize that we’ve given up something that was too precious. And by that point in time, we have desensitized the population and we get to a point where we cannot pull back. That’s what I’m worried about. I’m worried about the fact that face recognition through the work of Facebook and Apple and others. I’m not saying all of it is illegitimate. A lot of it is legitimate.
We’ve arrived at a point where the general public may have become blasé and may become desensitized because they see it everywhere. And maybe in 20 years, you step out of your house. You will no longer have the expectation that you wouldn’t be not. It will not be recognized by dozens of people you cross along the way. I think at that point in time that the public will be very alarmed because the media will start reporting on cases where people were stalked. People were targeted, people were even selected based on their net worth in the street and kidnapped. I think that’s a lot of responsibility on our hands.
And so I think the question of consent will continue to haunt the industry. And until that question is going to be a result, maybe it won’t be resolved. I think we need to establish limitations on what can be done with this technology.
My career also has taught me that being ahead too much is not a good thing because face recognition, as we know it today, was actually invented in 1994. But most people think that it was invented by Facebook and the machine learning algorithms, which are now proliferating all over the world. I basically, at some point in time, I had to step down as being a public CEO because I was curtailing the use of technology that my company was going to be promoting because the fear of negative consequences to humanity. So I feel scientists need to have the courage to project into the future and see the consequences of their work. I’m not saying they should stop making breakthroughs. No, you should go full force, make more breakthroughs, but we should also be honest with ourselves and basically alert the world and the policymakers that this breakthrough has pluses and has minuses. And therefore, in using this technology, we need some sort of guidance and frameworks to make sure it’s channeled for a positive application and not negative.
Jennifer: I Was There When… is an oral history project featuring the stories of people who have witnessed or created breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and computing.
Do you have a story to tell? Know someone who does? Drop us an email at email@example.com.
Jennifer: This episode was taped in New York City in December of 2020 and produced by me with help from Anthony Green and Emma Cillekens. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Mat Honan. Our mix engineer is Garret Lang… with sound design and music by Jacob Gorski.
Thanks for listening, I’m Jennifer Strong.