Scotland Yard super-recognizers ID faces far better than any current computer technology

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Could you have an unrecognized super power? For example, if you’re extraordinarily good at remembering faces, you may not even be aware of it. While most of us are okay at facial recognition, there are a very few whose skills classify them as ‘super-recognizers,’ according to NewStatesman.

If you had a super power that enabled you to fly, turn invisible, or climb buildings by throwing a sticky web-like substance from your wrists, you’d probably know that right off. Since facial recognition is a skill common to most of us, you might never know if you had a gift for it — unless someone came looking for it. And that’s how a small team of highly gifted super-recognizers was formed, who also happen to work for Scotland Yard.

The inabilty to recognize faces, called “prosopagnosia,” can result from brain trauma, but it can also be a developmental issue. It occurs in about two out of every 100 people, according to studies mentioned by NewStatesman. In some cases, people with diminished facial recognition cannot even recognize their own face in a mirror, let alone their family and friends. Prosopagnosia is more common than the reverse, those who can recognize a face years after a chance encounter and brief glance on the street. Super-recognizers can also match facial images of people they’ve never met but who have multiple photos on file.

In 2007, a Detective Chief Inspector of the London Metropolitan Police realized some officers were extraordinarily better at others at recognizing the faces of unidentified criminals captured by the city’s CCTV cameras. Testing and further screening eventually led to a small group of London police officers who formed the Super-Recognizer Unit in 2015.

The Super-Recognizer Unit is the only such team in the world. It currently consists of six men and one woman. The team has worked with German police and has also had visits and requests from law enforcement agencies from India, Australia, and the U.S.

Researchers focusing on super-recognition continue to study the ability. According to Anna Boback, research fellow at the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at Bournemouth University, the ability to recognize faces is largely genetic. Attempts to train people to improve have not had consistent results.

What about using computers for facial recognition? You know, like we see on TV? According to Scotland Yard officials, who themselves use the technology, the computer software has been credited with just 1 of 2,010 identifications made since 2015, when the official Super-Recognizer Unit was formed. The rest have been made by the team.

Psychologist Josh Davis, an expert on CCTV identification at the University of Greenwich, who also helped in testing and screening for the Super-Recognizer Unit, says, “Algorithms will get better and we will be able to build 3D representations of faces. But people change appearance and we as humans are primed to see through those changes.”


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