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Why Insurance Companies Are Interested in Facial Recognition Technology


"We can reliably predict, on average, how long people like you will live."

While the government, law enforcement and social media have been strong players in developing and using facial recognition software, as the technology advances other industries are looking into its possibilities as well, namely the health and insurance business.

Jay Olshansky with the University of Illinois in Chicago started a project to help refine facial recognition technology in a way that it could predict a person's lifespan.

“We know in the field of aging that some people tend to senesce, or grow older, more rapidly than others, and some more slowly,” Olshansky told the Washington Post. “And we also know that the children of people who senesce more slowly tend to live longer than other people.”

Researchers are refining techniques that use facial technology to estimate a person's lifespan based on how old they look. (Image source: Face My Age) Researchers are refining techniques that use facial technology to estimate a person's lifespan based on how old they look. (Image source: Face My Age)

Olshanksky said he came up with the idea to use facial recognition technology to predict aging while having dinner with someone who worked for an insurance company.

“He was complaining that he had a very short time to assess people’s survival prospects,” Olshansky said, noting that the methods used to help determine these prospects might also seem a bit insensitive.

While insurance companies might be interested in the technology to set premiums — though how accurate it could be is still unknown — Olshansky said it could also benefit people by convincing them to make healthy lifestyle changes while they still can.

Working with Karl Ricanek, a facial recognition expert at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, who has been involved in projects with the National Security Agency, FBI and CIA, a program was created to analyze faces and provide feedback on aging based on information solely from a photograph.

Face My Age, the website the men created for people to submit their photos to for analysis, draws from a database, comparing a person's face with the characteristics of other people of the same birth age. They then compare whether the person looks older or younger than their peers.

"[…] the bottom line is that if our technology tells you that your face age is 50, and you’re actually 60, that means your face looks exactly 10 years younger than all other people your age," the website stated. "Our ability to more precisely detect (perceived) face age will improve as more people upload their photographs."

The researchers estimate a person's lifespan using information gleaned from their face along with other personal questions.

"While we can't predict your exact duration of life, we can reliably predict, on average, how long people like you will live," the website stated.

According to the Post, the researchers won't really be able to tell how accurate this method of predicting lifespan is until enough of their participants die.

Some have also brought up the ethical concerns that could arise with using the technology in this manner.

“If at age 40 if there were something about your face saying you’re not likely to make it past 60, an employer could say, ‘Oh, I’m not willing to promote you to some position of importance because it’s not likely to be a good investment,’” Leonard Fleck, an ethics and philosophy professor at Michigan State University, told the Washington Post.

Plus, there can be exceptions to the rule.

“Sometimes people who look very healthy drop dead in the middle of the track, while others who look crinkled are still running at age 80,” Mark Collins with Glenn Foundation told the Post.

Then there's always the issue tricking the system with plastic surgery.

The Face My Age website said cosmetic surgery only "[masks] the signs of aging."

"In order to increase your chances of living a healthy and longer life, you need to avoid smoking, eat less, and exercise more," the website stated. "Science may soon develop therapies that will help you age slower, but until then, diet and exercise are the only equivalent of a fountain of youth that exist today."

Watch the Washington Post's feature about this technology:

Front page image via Shutterstock.

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