A Privacy Solution for a ‘Minority Report’ Future of Retail

It’s a “wild west” in the world of AI today, and the “future” as we’ve come to see it through science fiction is becoming a reality. In a “wild west” without meaningful oversight or regulation, the realization of science fiction technologies can actually be a lot more nightmarish than the original science fiction depictions!

One of my favorite examples is from the 2002 film Minority Report. There are multiple scenes in the movie where Tom Cruise’s character is walking through a physical space — whether it’s a dark alley or a brightly lit retail store — eye scanners hidden throughout the environment visually identify him and personalize various advertisements around him.

Here’s one of the best of these scenes:

Remember, this movie was made in 2002 and the book written in 1956 — so, the idea of hidden machines that can visually scan our identities and track us in real-time was likely part of the thriller aspect of the story.

It’s meant to send shivers down your spine — the idea of a dystopian future where our whereabouts are always known with the intent of a “better shopping experience.”

But now we come face-to-face with this technology today, and it has a major problem: the technology is still frightening!

Visual Identification Technology Scares People

This is a big problem for retail.

Over the last two decades, retail has been increasingly getting crushed by online sellers like Amazon.com. Mom and Pop stores have been closing and large household name brands are struggling to stay relevant in physical spaces.

Retail needs AI to give it the push it needs to get to the next level.

The technology exists today (albeit in its infancy) to instantly identify us and track our movements and behaviors throughout a store. Several companies are already using this technology, mostly in the automated checkout space.

But in speaking with these companies, I’ve been surprised to learn that they are not using facial recognition to identify customers — instead, opting to identify customers by other means including RFID, mobile check-ins, etc.

With all the compute horsepower available for tracking and classification, why aren’t they using facial recognition?

Because it’s scary.

It scares customers because it creeps them out to be visually identified by some unknown panopticon, and it scares retailers and technology vendors because they don’t know what the future holds for regulation.

Just a few weeks ago, San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition.

It was only for police use in identifying suspects in crimes, but the way the media portrayed it, one might easily believe the city banned facial recognition use for all retail businesses.

And companies are already coming out with discreet glasses you can use to collect identities of people you pass on the street. Talk about creepy! Regulation can’t come for this fast enough! (See my previous post on legal precedents to public visual identification with the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act)

The Solution: Visual Identification Privacy Settings

If consumers had the capacity to choose their privacy settings for a store as they enter it — much in the same way websites and email subscriptions give us the opportunity to “opt-out” as we visit them on our electronic devices — then I believe visual identification will catch on as a main stream technology.

Privacy, after all, is a matter of choice — that is, having the agency to choose who knows what about you.

Today in the “wild west” world of visual identification technologies, facial recognition is getting deployed without anyone’s expressed consent. That’s what makes it scary!

Here is a quick demo I put together to show how facial recognition combined with some basic gesture categorization could be used to get consent from consumers:

A consent-first implementation of visual identification is virtually immune to governmental regulation.

Of course, for this kind of consent interface to be successful, it needs to be big enough to keep track of privacy settings across multiple locations, ensuring that when you “opt-out” at the Starbucks in London it remembers that setting when you arrive at the Starbucks in Austin. Perhaps also a web portal on which consumers could go to view and manage their privacy setting across multiple retail stores.

The ultimate impact is soon retail will have all the tracking and retargeting technology that websites have enjoyed for years, only substantially better because video can track behavior down to the micro-expression.

However, this solution also needs to have some compelling reason for consumers to “opt-in” — otherwise everyone would just “opt-out” by default.

I think personalization, as creepy as it was portrayed in Minority Report, is that compelling reason.

Personalization Drives the Solution: McDonald’s Opts-In With $300M For Visual Identification at Drive-Thru’s

In March of this year, McDonald’s set a record for their largest technology acquisition to-date — an AI company out of Israel that does personalization at the drive-thru.

In order to personalize the menu and shopping experience to the consumer, this technology needs to visually recognize the consumer as they arrive.

In this case, they’re using license plates to identify cars in the drive-thru. I’m willing to bet they have several facial recognition prototypes as well.

This is that Minority Report scene coming to life before our very eyes at ubiquitous fast food restaurants across the globe!

And it points to the killer application of visual identification that will drive its adoption over time: personalization.

I further posit that personalization in a vacuum is not in-itself enough to compel consumers to want ubiquitous visual identification.

Personalization through visual identification needs to make you look like a Rockstar!

Imagine a young woman walking into a store with a friend — her friend is anonymous, but she’s opted-in — and immediately as she walks in the door she’s greeted with “welcome back Ms. Smith, how are those high heels you bought last time working out for you? Would you like to see some selections we’ve picked out just for you? And how about your friend?”

(Or, as it were, “Hello Mr. Yakamoto! Welcome back to the Gap! How did those assorted tank tops work out for you?”)

This kind of personalization with a social pressure is just the kind of thing that could make visual identification technology take off like a rocket because it makes people feel special and meaningful.

It effectively brings to busy, crowded urban environments the small-town feel of walking into your favorite store and the owner behind the counter knowing you instantly and asking “would you like the usual again today?”

In chatting about this with my friend Brian at LabelBox (an awesome annotation tool, by the way) we joked that one day we will look and laugh the sight of younger generations getting upset when their favorite store doesn’t instantly visually identify and recognize them for a personalized experience!

What do you think? Is visual identification too scary for widespread adoption to ever occur, or will it happen in our lifetimes?

Will it be regulated out of existence?

Or will younger generations accept and embrace the brave new world of visual recognition privacy as we’ve seen with social media?

Drop me a line at jason@techne.ai — I’m curious to know what you think.