As its accuracy increases, facial recognition technology is rapidly finding its way into numerous consumer and commercial applications.

Facial recognition has been used by government agencies, law enforcement and airports for years. Now technology companies are gearing up for mass commercialisation. For most consumers, smartphones are serving as a main point of entry. On September 12 Apple introduced the iPhone X, which features “Face ID” facial recognition for unlocking the phone. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 has a similar feature. In China, where the technology has been adopted more readily, people routinely “swipe” their faces to make payments on smartphones.

The market is still fairly small, but with the spread of business applications in particular, it could grow quickly. Current players include Chinese startup SenseTime and Russian firm NTechLab, as well as US firms Amazon, IBM and Microsoft, which provide face recognition as part of their cloud computing services. China’s Megvii is one of the biggest providers, with more than 300,000 companies and individuals worldwide using its systems.

Also in China, Ant Financial set up its “Smile to Pay” system for the first time in a physical store on September 1, allowing customers at a K Pro restaurant to pay by looking at a screen. Convenience store chain Xiaomai said it will use facial scans of people entering its stores to study their behaviour. Customers of several Chinese banks identify themselves at ATMs using their faces.

Companies in the West have generally been slower to embrace facial recognition, though the technology was developed in the US in the 1960s. Nvidia was among the first US companies to focus on it, and now uses it in a range of areas including automotive and gaming. Facebook collects biometric data and employs it to recognise users. Google uses it to group the images users upload to its cloud storage service. JetBlue and other US airlines are working on using facial recognition to match passengers’ faces to passport photos in order to eventually do away with boarding passes.

Facial recognition is used extensively in security systems, principally in the areas of banking and shopping. Lloyds Bank and other Western banks allow customers to log into their accounts with their faces. In retail, it can also be used to improve sales, for example by determining customer satisfaction through emotion detection or singling out loyal customers for special treatment. Walmart’s facial recognition system to improve customer service has been in the making since 2012.

The technology consists of two components: the underlying capability for recognising faces and connecting them to other data, and the applications that use it. Yin Qi, Chief Executive of Megvii, expects the technology to become a commodity, The Economist reports. He is heading his company’s visual computing “brain” for even more complex tasks. Ultimately Yin wants to expand into an “algorithm factory” offering the building blocks for an array of computer vision services.

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