Microsoft CEO: bring on regulation on facial recognition

Credit: ID 130405114 © Ratz Attila | Dreamstime.com

Facial recognition must be regulated, according to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, or the world could see a “race to the bottom” as vendors and customers find it too tempting to misuse artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities for harmful ends.    

Of all the technologies enabled by the current wave of breakthroughs in AI, facial recognition is the one application to watch out for, according to Microsoft. 

So much so that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella welcomes regulation on facial recognition, even though it peddles facial matching and detection on Azure cloud services.

Nadella said the marketplace for facial recognition was “competitive”, but that there were no rules around how the technology was used. 

Regulation should be introduced early, and it would be in every vendors’ interests for that to happen, because regulations after a public backlash could be worse, said Nadella.    

“There is no discrimination between the right use and the wrong use of facial recognition,” he said. 

Microsoft would keep building this technology, he said, but it wants to ensure there is “fair and robust” use of facial recognition technology and not any of the “unintended consequences”. 

“So I’ll call it self regulation,” he said, pointing to Microsoft principles for facial recognition that Microsoft vice president, Brad Smith, laid out in December in a blog that also called on lawmakers to take action on now.  

At Microsoft, said Smith, “we don’t believe that the world will be best served by a commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success.” 

Smith warned the technology could have dire consequences for privacy and democratic freedoms if left unchecked, particularly around its use by law enforcement for mass surveillance. 

Nadella echoed that opinion at Davos. “[W]e welcome any regulation that helps the marketplace not be a race to the bottom. Because if you turn it just to private enterprise, what happens many times is that you will have a race to the bottom and then we will have to come back and deal with the bad consequences with even more heavy-handed regulatory regimes and so on.”

Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have dealt with public and employee backlashes over government contracts involving AI when used in law enforcement or military. Amazon has been criticized for selling its Rekognition software to law enforcement while employees at Google have protested the company's work on the Pentagon's Project Maven for object recognition in drone and video surveillance footage.  

Nadella also said he hoped that the US would introduce a national law akin to Europe’s GDPR, putting him in line with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who’s also called for federal US data protection legislation. 

“I would hope that the world over we all converge on some common standard because one of the things we do not want to do is increasingly fragment the world and increase transaction costs,” said Nadella. 

The Microsoft CEO hopes that the US, Europe and China, could come together and agree on a set of standards. 

“All the three regions will have to come together and set a global standard because that’s the gonna help. By the way, most people think of this as some conflict between regions… Of course every country should put their country’s interests first, but in the digital world it will help all of us grow if we realize that it’s a connected world to start with.” 

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