Face recognition robots already making our lives a misery

Nury Vittachi

I ran at Olympic speed for a bus but missed it, so I had to pretend that I always go jogging in a business suit and I ended up a sweaty mess a kilometre from the transport hub.

I hate travel. Once at an airport I was chased by R2-D2, and he had a gun. This is not a joke. Terminal three of the international airport at Shenzhen in southern China has a face-recognising robot wandering around. It looks like the robot in "Star Wars", but rather than making cute, bird-like warbles, it has face-recognition cameras and a Taser gun to zap you with.

Suddenly all the pieces this columnist has written poking fun at the authorities flashed before his eyes. Run for it? No. It goes at 18 km an hour, a speed that humans cannot reach even in taxis, thanks to traffic jams.

In several places in Beijing, the toilets have facial recognition. A wall-mounted machine looks at you, decides if you are human, and then releases a measly 60 cm of toilet paper. It then puts you on an internal No More Toilet Paper blacklist for nine minutes. No one can be bothered to wait such an inordinately long time, roughly the length of a Hollywood marriage.

"Toilet paper usage has fallen dramatically," the Beijing press announced. This is a bit like that old joke: "My dog doesn't eat meat." "How come?" "I don't give him any."

In Russia, people claim to have put Facebook-style face recognition software on phones, so that you can instantly find out anyone's name. This would be good news for me, as I forget everyone's name, my wife and children included. On the downside, an unscrupulous stranger could use it to find out my details and then pretend to be the fruit of my loins. "Hi, I'm one of your children, please pay my school fees, I'll take the money in cash now, thanks, mate, I mean, daddy."

At the moment, it is only available in one language, so keep a wary eye out for people with Russian accents claiming to be your offspring.

My techie friends say that the next iPhone will recognise its owner's face and switch itself on. I'm going to programme mine to respond in the voice of the female computer (whose name is just "Computer") in "Star Trek": "Ah, Master, you have entered the room. You are looking so manly, as always." I'll programme it to shiver with delight as I pick it up.

They also told me that the robot household assistant called Alexa has been tweaked so it will now answer to the word "Computer", just like on "Star Trek". Sad people with no lives will dress up as Mr Spock or Captain Kirk and pretend they are living in a "Star Trek" fantasy. (But I'm going to wait until my family members are out.)

At Beijing fried chicken shops, the face-recognition robot looks at you, guesses how old you are, and then offers "appropriate" meals. Young people are offered fried chicken and cola, older ones are offered soybean milk and porridge.

Next boom industry: Face transplants. Me first.

(Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via his Facebook page)