Things that make you go hmmm: Microsoft How-Old; Could facial recognition tech turn ugly?

As many of you know I normally write long form analytical editorial pieces. Don't worry I will continue to do so. I'm working toward completing the "Highs and Lows: Microsoft's Smartphone Strategy" series as you're reading this.

Now and then however, interspersed between those more in-depth pieces, I will engage you with these shorter pieces that look at a particular aspect of the Microsoft ecosystem in brief. Technology, particularly new implementations of technology, has introduced just as many questions as proponents of the technology claim it answers. These pieces will focus on, as Arsenio would say, things that make you go, "hmmm?"

On the Face of Things

I downloaded the "Microsoft How-Old" Windows Phone app today. As my colleague Harish aptly described in his excellent piece earlier, the app utilizes Microsoft's facial recognition software to guess a person's age. The software also takes a stab at figuring out your gender. It can be a fun distraction and a bit flattering as well. The app consistently pegs me as younger than my actual age. As a matter of fact, it labeled me 15 years younger than my nearly 42 years based on a picture I took last week with my newborn daughter. Flattery will get you nowhere Microsoft.

Facing Facts

In all seriousness though, this is a pretty cool app with tremendous potential. Looking a little deeper than it's "carnival trick'" veneer, I surmise the goal of this app has less to do with a user's enjoyment and is more a tool deployed by Microsoft to collect data. I believe the "How-Old" app and website are designed to help Microsoft accrue data that will assist them in perfecting the facial recognition technology the company purposes to implement in its desktop and mobile Windows 10 devices.

Of course, the app and web service are also positioned to generate awareness of the technology before it débuts in a more purposed and refined form. The service is fun and engaging. People will use it. It's the type of app that you check out on your own as well as a social app that you use when among friends and family. The more who use the app, the more they engage the system and the more data and feedback Microsoft culls to improve the service. As an added benefit for Microsoft, the website saw far more activity than the company expected. How they could underestimate the potential of a site totally focused on 'self' in this 'me' generation is beyond me. Anyway...

Though the app in its current state offers some fun and amusement, its practicality from a user's perspective is, at least for now, limited. But, as a tool that Microsoft is likely subtly using to hone its facial recognition technology for future practical and I imagine, ambitious implementations, this release is a great strategy. Users, if interested, could help the cause by downloading and using the app today. That is, of course if you're not concerned about the many "not so cool" ways facial recognition technology can eventually be used if widely implemented throughout society.

Think about it. Microsoft is a cloud first and mobile first company with ambitions to embed Windows 10 in as many IoT device's of various shapes and sizes as possible. Their goal is also to reach an installed base of 1 billion Windows 10 computers within 2-3 years after the new operating systems release. Finally their cross-platform strategy and new found openness reveal the companies desire to thoroughly saturate every platform with its products and services. And now they've designed and launched intelligent software that can recognize you. Hmmm.

All Up in Your Face

Imagine cameras, which already have a virtually ubiquitous presence in our communities, possessing intelligent software that will allow them to potentially recognize you everywhere you go. ATMs, stores, parks, traffic lights, police officer body and vehicle cams. Not worried yet? What about the snooping cameras on other people's mobile devices! Yes, the list goes on. Privacy beware!

Let's take it a bit further. I can also envision that this technology will eventually find its way into Cortana. Thus allowing Microsoft's evolving digital assistant to recognize random people anytime and anywhere. Remember Project Adam?

That project has already delved into using deep learning to allow for a machine to recognize a plethora of diverse images. "Hey Cortana, who is that?" accompanied with a slick tilt of the camera in the direction of your target may sound like science fiction today, but so did an ever present interactive digital assistant ten years ago. With over 1.4 billion users on Facebook as tagged and ready resources, and Cortana, the AI incarnation of Microsoft's Bing search engine, her access to 1/7 of the faces of the world's population via that source alone is just a search away. Hmmm.

Finally, envision the profound applications of this technology if third party developers wrapped their boundless imaginations and creative coding around the "How-Old" facial recognition API's. Imagine the possibilities... or something else. Hmmmmm.

Facing the End (Of the piece... what did you think I meant?)

Oh well. I have the app on my Lumia 1520 and it tells me I'm 27 rather than almost 42. So even if we're headed toward an Orwellian future, I do anticipate using the app again. Maybe among family and friends or possibly during one of those inevitable moments when I'm feeling a little old. What's a guy to do? I guess flattery has gotten Microsoft somewhere.

Penny for Your Thoughts

Hmmm. So what are you thinking? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the potential pros and cons of this technology. What are the possible ethical, moral and privacy complications this technology presents? What are the potential benefits or problems that it solves? Please chime-in in comments and on Twitter @JLTechWord. We've got a lot to talk about!

Download Microsoft How-Old for Windows Phone (free)

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

  • Let's hear what's on your mind. What scenarios can you envision where this technology can be implemented? What are the pros and cons? Also what do you think of the "Thing's That Make You Go, Hmmm" category of articles?
  • Hmm that Cortana t shirt where can I get it ??
  • Mine was a gift. One for me and my wife.:-)
  • You can get one from MS here:
  • Whatever Cortana is going to iOS and android and we do not like that.
  • No I love Cortana whatsoever
  • Did you not read that article on why Cortana going cross platform is good?
  • I like it.  I think it increases MS's exposure, which is a good thing.
  • why do you want to be always a troll microsoft is software company they build their apps for other ecosystems please think wiser
  • I don't like Cortana going to android and ios but given the opportunity for Microsoft to expand their usage of their personal assistant and it making for better results responses and functionality I don't mind. Besides it is much better integrated in the win ecosystem
  • I enjoyed the article.
  • @Nicholas. Thanks!:-)
  • @mattoneandoriginal thanks for your feedback:-)
  • *You're*
  • It was a great article buddy. Keep em coming yo!
  • Thanks Double M:-)!
  • Hi Jason, I enjoyed this article. It would seem, just like you, I am a curious person when it comes to things like this. Maybe Microsoft has something planned, and when I first heard about hte how old app I thought they might use it to their advantage when they release the facial unlock feature for win10. I guess there can and will be many speculations about this, but at least we get to see what Microsoft has in this niche market and I am impressed. It told me my wife is about 4 years younger than she currently is. So at least something else can see the beauty that she is. :D
  • The app just loads and does not do anything.. :/
  • "Imagine cameras, which already have a virtually ubiquitous presence in our communities, possessing intelligent software that will allow them to potentially recognize you everywhere you go. ATMs, stores, parks, traffic lights, police officer body and vehicle cams. Not worried yet? What about the snooping cameras on other people's mobile devices! Yes, the list goes on. Privacy beware!" Am I reading a Watch_Dogs review?
  • It never worked for me
  • I don't get why they don't have the app ask for your actual age and gender after trying to guess. I feel like that data would be extremely helpful to Microsoft in developing this technology.
  • I thought the same thing. But, as the article says, they probably an alterier motive for this technology.  There is a huge spectrum on what a 20 or 05 or whatever age person looks like, and will be impossible for it to be 100% accurate.  Ao maybe don't care too much about the accuracy. Instead, they are likely mining us for data.  They want to use facial images to improve facial recognition software, such as Microsoft Hello, or other similar type projects.
  • I'm sure that's the case but I still feel like the correct data would be useful. All I know is it constantly guesses I'm in my late 40s or early 50s and I'm just a 21 year old college student. :(
  • You are not alone. I am 19 and it shows 35!
  • Good question. @txaggie2016
  • Even just a "Did I guess right? Yes / No" would be helpful.
  • I was thinking the same.
  • Jason strikes again.
    Did you by any chance wrote articles on WordPress also..??
  • @Aman2901 Thanks! Yes sir. I ran/run a blog there which has been neglected since joining WPCentral. I feel my time is better served here with you guys!
  • "Ward's Word On Tech"
    "My Road To Nokia Lumia 1520"
    Now I remember talking to you months back.
  • I think there's a machine out there that's supposed to be protecting us but it's getting smarter every day and it's going to destroy us... all of us, except Matthew Perry, because he was Cortana's father.
  • Maybe I'm missing something, but given that How-Old.Net says pictures aren't stored, what type of data is collected?
  • I was wondering the same thing.
  • Could be device information, or how often the app is used, or how much difference the age range is on the same device.
  • Facebook does it already, and Google eats breakfast with you every morning. This is comparatively a naive application of the tech. And I don't really care about the dystopian sci-fi side, this is a logging tool, and it's useful.
    Didn't like the scaredy aspect of the article, I think it's out of place in a technology blog.
  • Thanks for the input @fdruid.:-) As the stewards of the technology we use its always good to look at the various ways, good or bad, our tech can affect our lives. As a kid, for me a widely available internet was not even a thing! Now its with me wherever I go. Who would have thought a DARPA project would have led to this. Early concerns were expressed during the 90's about some of the misuses and dangers of the, popular term then, World Wide Web. Those concerns, as well as the possibilities shared here for facial recognition technology, I believe are very appropriately shared on a tech site. Why. You the tech savvy audience are have your fingers on the pulse of the latest tech, you understand the tech and have a deeper view and interest of how technology can or should be implemented in our lives. You are the audience that can grasp and articulate the pros and cons technology brings to the less tech savvy. Just as you with passion and skill articulate the merits of Windows Phone.
    Thanks for you input again fdruid. I do appreciate the feedback. I just think there is value in briefly sharing through this short piece "another possible side" to the how-old technology other than the perspective that we here at Windows Central and other sites have covered. :-) Keep the conversation going!
  • I love this constructive approach to criticisms and suggestions!
  • Thanks @Prartyush! We're all on the same team. That being the team of humanity :-) And we all deserve respect!
  • Welcome. Well said!
  • As much as I like the app, it needs a lot of improvements
  • This is exactly what I think ... With this "game" Microsoft acquire more information to enhance the technology used with windows hello
  • Wow, your "short" articles are longer than a lot of the normal articles here and still written with that Jason Ward awesomeness.
  • @xFalk. Lol. Thanks. I guess I am a bit verbose. I'm working on that. :-) But thanks for the support. :-) I'd like to continue this series of relatively briefer "Things that make you go, hmmm..." pieces that look at tech or strategies that may be controversial or particularly interesting.
    I'll be doing those between the more in depth editorials. What are your thoughts on that?
  • Love your in-depths as they are thoughfully written and engaging with the included media cues you throw in.  Normally I would skim thorough longer articles but I read most of the content in your editorials because you not only tell the story professionally but also add a person-to-person tilt.  Regarding the shorter form articles, I find the behind the scenes aspect of your "Things that make you go, hmmm..." interesting.  Daniel is also very good at that type of back-end analysis but if you take on some of the more obscure "things" and dig into what's behind them, while adding in your own style, that only adds to the appreciation of such "thing".  My only advice for short articles is to try to keep them short. I know that's a relative term, but its also an expectation.
  • @xfalk Thanks for that feedback!:-)
  • Wasn't something like this in the movie "Minority Report"?? I think Tom Cruise's character John Anderton was running through some terminal or something, could have been a subway, and there was cameras there pointing at the turnstiles that would recognize the person walking past it.
  • @jcrod73 Science fiction does often become science fact.:-)
  • There's a Microsoft Hello engine to train, everyone start taking pictures!
  • So my thoughts on How-Old are that it is a minor by-product of facial recognition that Microsoft is working on.  A toy for us to play with and some techno PR for Microsoft.  There must be some benefit to the MS developers from this app but I dont see how it can be anything major.  Now if they were to ask your true age (and most people gave it correctly) after the app made it's guess and, then I can see some actual refinement of the technology behind the app happening. Otherwise, it's more fluff than function.  That said, I do enjoy playing with it.
  • Exactly my thought on this... No feedback button in-app to let them know I'm not 44 nor 23, I'm 31 :)
  • Great article! Really enjoyed it. In my opinion we're getting too close to the Watch Dogs world that Ubisoft created for games... Scary
  • this app of microsolf is fun and my friend and i have happy time together :)
  • it's pretty inaccurate most of the can't stop trying until u get a younger result..then your fine..
    it does have a flattering effect though it's clear on your mind that it's not true.
  • Great article @Jason !
    Hashtag Respect
  • Does race or skin color affect the algorithms for this? I would imagine that wrinkles, for example, might be more easily masked in a photo if the skin was darker. As a white person, I think we age very obviously and sometimes pretty grotesquely! :)
  • Awesome write up. I'm glad someone from WCentral is capable of thinking outside Microsoft. We should always think from the 'other side' too. Thank you Jason. Also 'hmmm' category articles will be a fresh change from the 'Always-trying-to-find-positive-in-Microsoft' kind of articles. Once again thank you very much for a different thought provoking article.
  • I don't like my photo being taken for precisely this reason.