Reason360: Among us

In September 2001 I would reach into my pocket to take out a small folding leather case; another pocket contained a portable telephone for telephone calls, short messages, and Snake. In the leather case were about ten plastic cards – perhaps a little smaller than my palm – most containing magnetic coding. Having selected the appropriate card, I would insert it into a machine, enter a short numeric code known only to me and wait a few pregnant seconds for the machine to confirm its satisfaction with both card and code. Finally, I would remove the card and replace it in the case, and then the case in my pocket. All up this took perhaps 30 seconds, although sometimes – say when two different cards were needed to track my activity and pay for it – it might have taken as long as a minute.

In September 2021 my watch observed my pulse to determine whether it had stayed on my wrist since receiving input that morning of a numeric code known only to me. If it had, I could indicate approval for it to communicate with the next compatible reader it encountered by double-tapping a button, then presenting the wrist and watch to such a reader to complete a transaction. This took perhaps 10 seconds in all, including both removing and replacing hand in pocket if so desired.

For information requiring a greater area for presentation such as providing evidence of my licence to drive, the portable telephone had been replaced with a portable computer that recognised me by face and allowed me to present this information securely on screen upon demand. The leather case was consigned to the drawer for things never to be needed again.

Just like the rest of humanity’s technological output, consumer adoption of biometrics has been led by convenience. And just like other recent technological advances that have out-convenienced the alternatives, vague notions of information trust have underpinned acceptance of biometrics in consumer devices. Simultaneously a different need for trust at a much larger scale – that between organisations, governments, and individuals – has combined with the inconvenience of the alternatives to drive usage of biometrics with explicitly centralised control over biometric information.

Many other examples of biometric-driven transition over the last 20 years can be cited. In some, like in my own field of customer service delivery at scale, biometric service delivery experiences are engineered with the utmost in simplicity and customer self-reliance in mind; in other fields such as border control, the continuous presence of real people in a physical area where movements are being controlled allows a high level of confidence from the combined biometric-human operation; in yet others, biometrics have been used to simplify everyday activities such as photography.

This two-decade rise in biometric usage has happened at the same time as another civilisation-wide transformation: the slow increase in artificial intelligence. While the intellect demonstrated artificially today is deficient in many ways, it is nearly certain that this will improve, and that we will end up with a new set of actors influencing the world around us. It is entirely possible (albeit by no means certain) that these artificial actors – ‘the machines’ if you like – will appear among us within the next 20 years.

Fundamentally this leaves us with a question: do we want these machines to be able to recognise us?

It also leaves us with the inverse question: what if the machines could *not* recognise us? Is it conceivable that they could even exist, absent the capacity for recognising us?

These big picture questions translate into hundreds of smaller points about individual biometric implementations, selections of use cases, data exchanges, security requirements, relationships between physical and digital identities, vulnerabilities to confusion, privacy, and many other subjects.

The first 20 years of the Biometrics Institute’s existence have largely been spent helping the many types of engaged stakeholders to think carefully about these points, by connecting people and providing guidance. In that time the bigger picture questions have loomed over us, casting an indistinct image across our work. But that image is slowly coming into focus, and will I expect demand greater attention from both the Institute and society at large over the next 20 years as we shape this most important part of our future world.

In September 2041 I take the goods and commission the services I want when I want them; and any identity information or transactions required are automatically performed according to my chosen preferences – unless I instruct an ever-present artificial assistant otherwise. I spend time on exception cases when needed, not on typical daily occurrences; and the watch is worn for decoration, not function.

Hundreds of years of technological advancement have slowly brought benefits and convenience once only available to the wealthy down to the average citizen. And here we are contemplating no longer having to carry means of payment or information, a little like the Queen.

It could be argued that the price of great wealth is fame – that is, a lack of anonymity.

Hopefully that is not the price of convenience for all of us.

Brett Feldon
Head of the Digital Identity Group, Biometrics Institute
+61 457 817 326

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