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Facebook's AI Chief on Facial Recognition: 'We Don't Want to Upset People'

Facebook's new facial recognition technology doesn't actually use faces—should we be worried?

Facial recognition software no longer needs to see your faceFacial recognition software no longer needs to see your face in order to recognize you, a development that has understandably spurred all sorts of anxiety among the privacy-conscious. Facebook's artificial intelligence chief says we won't see the company's new technology used until people are ready to accept our new back-of-your-head recognition reality—should we believe him?

"It's a scientific experiment to see how well we can do in this respect," Yann LeCun, Facebook's director of artificial intelligence, said at a French technology conference in New York City Wednesday. "This is not some dark basement somewhere where we are hiding what we're working on, we publish everything we do with the broader research community—we are trying to push science forward."

LeCun said that a series of advances have made it possible to snag a person's face in one photo, and then to recognize them later. "We can identify them by which clothes they're wearing and the body type they have, even if we don't see their faces," he said.

In a keynote conversation with Yahoo's Alyssa Bereznak, LeCun said that it's obviously useful for AI to recognize people without actually seeing their faces, but that the company isn't ready to upset its users by implementing it into any of Facebook's platforms.

"Face recognition products are deployed in most countries, but not in countries where people are uncomfortable with it," he said. "We don't want to upset people, so we don't have facial recognition in Europe where people are uncomfortable with it."

That may be the case, but in the United States, Facebook has turned its repository of, well, faces into something that its users may find creepy but nonetheless convenient. After years of asking users to click on faces and "tag" their friends, Facebook started more-or-less automating the process. It now has one of the most widely used facial recognition programs in the world, and few people think twice about the fact that Facebook knows exactly what you look like.

Last week, Facebook launched "Moments," a new photo-sharing app that relies entirely on facial recognition. Basically, it allows you to send batches of your private photos to the people who are in the photos with a Tinder-like swipe. If you go to a music festival, for instance, you can get all the pictures from that event without your friend having to actually put them on Facebook.

While the American public responded to Moments with a "meh," privacy groups and Europe were highly concerned about the potential for privacy abuse—so much so that the product is not going to be released in the EU.

"We're not developing products directly, but we work to help get a spectrum of different products out the door," LeCun said. "We work on things that have an application within a few years, image recognition, face recognition."

As Facebook has more or less let facial recognition's role increase in all of its American products, it seems unlikely that LeCun's new tech is going to sit on the shelf forever. The utility of Moments, for instance, increases substantially if it's able to tell who you happened to be hanging out with that day.

If Facebook can call upon information it already has stored about you—you're wearing that red checkered shirt AGAIN?—then Moments can "seamlessly" help you share photos. Is there any doubt that, creepy or not, we're going to eventually see this tech in Facebook's products?