These computers see you, read you and even tell you to wash your hands


Published: Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 9:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 9:59 p.m.

Hundreds of correctional officers from prisons across America descended last spring on a shuttered penitentiary in West Virginia for annual training exercises.

Some officers played the role of prisoners, acting like gang members and stirring up trouble, including a mock riot. The latest in prison gear got a workout — body armor, shields, riot helmets, smoke bombs, gas masks. And, at this particular drill, computers that could see the action.

Perched above the prison yard, five cameras tracked the play-acting prisoners, and artificial-intelligence software analyzed the images to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. When two groups of inmates moved toward each other, the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.

The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants.

The enthusiasm for such systems extends well beyond the nation's prisons. High-resolution, low-cost cameras are proliferating, found in everyday products like smart phones and laptop computers. The cost of storing images is dropping, and new software algorithms for mining, matching and scrutinizing the flood of visual data are progressing swiftly.

A computer-vision system can watch a hospital room and remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands, or warn of restless patients who are in danger of falling out of bed. It can, through a computer-equipped mirror, read a man's face to detect his heart rate and other vital signs. It can analyze a woman's expressions as she watches a movie trailer or shops online, and help marketers tailor their offerings accordingly. Computer vision can also be used at shopping malls, schoolyards, subway platforms, office complexes and stadiums.

All of which could be helpful — or alarming.

“Machines will definitely be able to observe us and understand us better,” said Hartmut Neven, a computer scientist and vision expert at Google. “Where that leads is uncertain.”

Google has been both at the forefront of the technology's development and a source of the anxiety surrounding it. Its Street View service, which lets Internet users zoom in from above on a particular location, faced privacy complaints. Google will blur out people's homes at their request.

Google has also introduced an application called Goggles, which allows people to take a picture with a smart phone and search the Internet for matching images. The company's executives decided to exclude a facial-recognition feature, which they feared might be used to find personal information on people who did not know that they were being photographed.

Despite such qualms, computer vision is moving into the mainstream. With this technological evolution, scientists predict, people will increasingly be surrounded by machines that can not only see but also reason about what they are seeing, in their own limited way.

The uses, noted Frances Scott, an expert in surveillance technologies at the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department's research agency, could allow the authorities to spot a terrorist, identify a lost child or locate an Alzheimer's patient who has wandered off.

The future of law enforcement, national security and military operations will most likely rely on observant machines. A few months ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's research arm, awarded the first round of grants in a five-year research program called the Mind's Eye. Its goal is to develop machines that can recognize, analyze and communicate what they see. Mounted on small robots or drones, these smart machines could replace human scouts.

“These things, in a sense, could be team members,” said James Donlon, the program's manager.

Millions of people now use products that show the progress that has been made in computer vision. In the last two years, the major online photo-sharing services — Picasa by Google, Windows Live Photo Gallery by Microsoft, Flickr by Yahoo and iPhoto by Apple — have all started using face recognition. A user puts a name to a face, and the service finds matches in other photographs. It is a popular tool for finding and organizing pictures.

‘Please wash your hands'

A nurse walks into a hospital room while scanning a clipboard. She greets the patient and washes her hands. She checks and records his heart rate and blood pressure, adjusts the intravenous drip, turns him over to look for bed sores, then heads for the door but does not wash her hands again, as protocol requires. “Pardon the interruption,” declares a recorded woman's voice, with a slight British accent. “Please wash your hands.”

Three months ago, Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, N.Y., began an experiment with computer vision in a single hospital room. Three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling, monitor movements in Room 542, in a special care unit where patients are treated for conditions like severe pneumonia, heart attacks and strokes. The cameras track people going in and out of the room as well as the patient's movements in bed.

The first applications of the system, designed by scientists at General Electric, are immediate reminders and alerts. Doctors and nurses are supposed to wash their hands before and after touching a patient; lapses contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections, research shows.

The camera over the bed delivers images to software that is programmed to recognize movements that indicate when a patient is in danger of falling out of bed. The system would send an alert to a nearby nurse.

If the results at Bassett prove to be encouraging, more features can be added, like software that analyzes facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress, said Kunter Akbay, a GE scientist.

Darker possibilities

The challenge arises from the prospect of the rapid spread of less-expensive, yet powerful, computer-vision technologies.

At work or school, the technology opens the door to a computerized supervisor that is always watching. Are you paying attention, goofing off or daydreaming? In stores and shopping malls, smart surveillance could bring behavioral tracking into the physical world.

More subtle could be the effect of a person knowing that he is being watched — and how that awareness changes his thinking and actions. It could be beneficial: A person thinks twice and a crime goes uncommitted. But might it also lead to a society that is less spontaneous, less creative, less innovative?

“With every technology, there is a dark side,” said Hany Farid, a computer scientist at Dartmouth. “Sometimes you can predict it, but often you can't.”

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top