Evolution of the password: your face can unlock a laptop, too

It would be a New York minute to enter the elevator – traditional, impossibly lively and comically scrambled to 11 in the way it travels. Our 12th-floor office not only has hot dog carts…

It would be a New York minute to enter the elevator – traditional, impossibly lively and comically scrambled to 11 in the way it travels.

Our 12th-floor office not only has hot dog carts outside on the street below, but two waiters in Chinese brocade seated on a patch of cement. Above us is the Empire State Building, a terrifying 100-storey free-fall to a dizzying level of spires and red neon.

We were several floors above the last century when we started working at news organisation Dealbreaker, set up by Tina Brown in 2008. Only it isn’t a news site. Rather, it has seen-it-all editors pore over newspapers and their much loved news stars. They create posts and sell deals from around the web, reacting to the breaking stories of the day and responding to emails from the UK general election campaign. The going rate for high-profile news tips: $50 (£32).

But if you think that sounds like a $3,000 a year salary for journalists – sorry, editors – you’d be wrong. It would take, across the 24 days between my leaving work in the fall of 2010 and my arrival in New York, at least $10,000 (£6,560) to hire a reporter, let alone a desk-jockey like us. If you wanted to launch a magazine, it’s probably five times the starting salary. With that in mind, call me a crazy capitalist.

Last week I heard about this company which claims that facial recognition cameras can unlock your door, operate your microwave and find you your keys. I rang it – the company it says exists is called Soul Science. It set me straight that, though I could pay for its services – but wouldn’t it be much cheaper to just run a physical key-finding service?

“We’re not a key-finding service. We’re a matching service.”

Hear hear. First thing to know about the company is that it’s not the biggest. The big guns – such as Face First (a US security company that uses your face to locate where you work) and the Coolfacial which allows you to match your face with thousands of other people who share a similar appearance – are not on their side. But presumably it can think of some examples of how it might work.

In fact, that is exactly what it did. Just one of its claims to fame was that it took four seconds to match the computer to the user’s face and 100 seconds for me to be matched to an image of my face.

Last week I was given a detailed tutorial on how to unlock a laptop using its facial recognition software. After hours of loading up the page – with my eyes checked for wrinkles, registered makeup and cross-referenced against the facial images of 100 people who share my appearance – there was one final step. It asked me to provide the machine with a seven-digit ID code in order to be allowed to access your computer.

Lists of similar faces were loaded into the system and my matching faces appeared in front of my computer.

For some time I wondered how Soul Science was approaching its business. If you don’t know anything about face recognition software, just imagine your avatar resembles the face of a building – a perfectly round face with a precision quiff. Your avatar can’t walk, but you can walk around it.

I have a good idea how this can work. Rather than having to find out where its farmyard could be to use it to accurately determine where to walk, it would probably just rely on the scan of my face and the details of my face scan stored in its database. After all, my webcam has been emptied of details from four pictures – one of which, the genuinely weird one from my sixth birthday, looks pretty accurate.

Some companies, such as American Ethanol Corporation (commonly known as “an ethanol company”), have already sold their own machines to farmers who use them to show that their fields have the wrong kind of grass. But it does make you wonder if the company behind Soul Science has tapped into an important market for better provisioning self-driving cars.

When I spoke to Soul Science a week ago the company’s senior vice president was a guy called David Bodrick, who was, to put it bluntly, astonishingly polite.

“We’re a matching service and we’re not creating a substitute for an organisation like a social network.”

• This article was amended on 21 April 2010 to correct the spelling of the company’s name, which has been changed from “Story Science” to “Soul Science”.

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