It looks simple in the movies. The hero feeds a digital image of a suspect into a computer, which matches it with millions of data files and comes up with a positive identification.
But in real life, it took eyeballs, not microchips, to identify Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the two young men believed to have bombed the Boston Marathon. Despite pictures of the brothers being in government databases, such as for motor vehicle licenses, the facial-recognition software was not able to match them against the fuzzy, grainy images investigators had of the suspects at the scene.
And it may be years before the technology works as well in real life as it does in the movies.
“That’s an open question that people who are developing systems are trying to solve,” said P. Jonathon Phillips, an electrical engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who evaluates facial-recognition systems for the federal government. “We still do not know how long it will take.”
But even today, facial recognition can work well. The technology is commonly used by millions of amateurs who edit photos in programs such as Google Inc.’s Picasa. The software allows users to attach a name to a face in a photograph stored on the computer’s hard drive. Immediately, Picasa automatically locates the same face in every other photo on the computer.
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