Facing the future of digital


A new day, a new digital innovation comes to the fore. There are few industries where technology is being adopted at the pace currently seen in retail.

Just months ago, consumers were thrilled to be able to have their groceries delivered within 10 minutes in some towns – thanks to grocery apps such as Gorillas. Around the same time, Amazon was among a number of bricks and mortar stores to go check-out free, with AI technology.

Now, the latest tech being trialled – this time by our supermarkets - is facial recognition software for age verification. It’s so accurate, it can tell a shopper’s age to within a few years.

Facial recognition and similar technology have long been championed as the ultimate game changer by the digital industry to speed up identification and payment processes, in particular. For SQLI UK CEO Jonty Sutton, it still faces a battle to strike the right balance between convenience and privacy concerns for its long-term implementation.

He said: “Finding out supermarkets are trialling this type of technology is not surprising.  Convenience and personalisation are at the heart of nearly everything that is happing in digital commerce right now.

“Before the pandemic, brands were happy to make regular smaller changes to their on-and-offline business models.

“Now, digital has seen such an upturn in take-up, there is a much bigger appetite to make wholesale changes or try different technology that can make things even quicker, easier and cheaper.

“However, as with all things data-driven or involving facial verification technology, there are always concerns about privacy and security and that’s the balancing act that digital retailers have to get right.”

Face-to-face with the future

Facial recognition uses biometric software to recognise, identify and authenticate a person, by comparing and analysing data and patterns based on their facial contours.

The Facial Recognition market as a whole was worth $3.72 billion in 2020 but projected to be worth $11.62 billion by 2026, with Asia acknowledged as the fastest growing region in the world.

Already used in areas such as policing and customs, the pandemic saw companies and authorities update their face recognition algorithms to accommodate new variables including face masks, helping lower error rates considerably.

Retail brands in China, in particular, are also following suit by embracing the technology. Jack & Jones and Vero Moda have opened smart stores in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, where customers complete a facial recognition process in store to become a member of the AI Club powered by WeChat Pay. From then on, they can pay using their face, with personalised recommendations sent to them digitally to try on virtually, all part of the futuristic service.

Jonty continued: “The technology is getting better all the time. Tests by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology found that facial recognition systems got 20 times better at finding a match in a database of 12 million portrait photos, between 2014 and 2018. The failure rate is now very small.”

Digital Age Verification: What’s the trial about?

Although distinct from facial recognition software, ASDA, the Co-op, Tesco, Aldi and Morrisons have all signed up to a government scheme to trial age estimation technology that can accurately check the ages of customers when it comes to buying alcohol.

Interested retailers put forward proposals last year, with the five supermarkets taking part now named by the Home Office.

Some selected stores have already started piloting the technology, which sees AI-powered self-check-out cameras assess whether a shopper is over 25.

The pilot is the result of a ‘regulatory sandbox’, allowing businesses to test new approaches in real-world situations without some of the usual rules applying. The government and retailers believe this could help cut down on the time and need of showing a physical ID and altercations with younger shoppers - and allow customers to get through self-service checkouts quicker.

How it works

The digital identity platform implemented during the scheme is by Yoti – which claims to have developed the world’s most accurate age estimation technology.

Distinct from facial recognition technology, and already used by the NHS in various settings, its AI-powered algorithms check the age of faces with an average accuracy of 2.2 years, rising to one-and-a-half years for those aged 16 to 20.

The technology is built into self-service terminals, taking photos of consenting customers’ faces to be analysed, processed – and then deleted. During the pilot, supervisors will also double check participants’ ages.

Challenges - and the future

As with a lot of new technology there is pushback against facial recognition technology and similar technology being implemented. For some, the intrusion into their private lives is too great a price to pay for convenience.

Rarely a day goes by without a company being accused of using, or selling, data it has collected on customers it shouldn’t have. The pandemic has also thrown up huge concerns across the globe on whether we should need to scan health cards to get into venues and shops: how would these same people feel if they needed to go through a face scanner to enter instead?

For Jonty, there is still a lot of work to be done with data storage and security for facial recognition to become a permanent fixture.

He added: “The technology being used is breath-taking. Not only do brands know so much about you already, but they are taking it into the physical space, too. It will be scientifically-determined what will be sold in that store at any given time.

“Shopping experiences will become more streamlined and more connected than they are now. Online and offline will become even more seamless. You will be able to walk into a shop, pick something up and just walk out with it and you’ve paid without interacting with anyone. That’s clever in its own right, but brands will also soon be able to watch you in the store – what are you looking at, what are your hotspots? Am I looking at other products but not picking them up? They will be gathering all of that insight and data and targeting your online accounts with these recommendations.

“The data is the key. But the issues are, are we ready to have more cameras in stores and everywhere we go? Are we ready to be bombarded with personalised suggestions all the time? What happens to all the data? Who is it shared with?

“There’s also the added issue of many brands being about the ‘human’ touch. We won’t want to lose that completely.

“I don’t think we are quite ready to have cameras and tech pushed into our faces everywhere we go. It will need to be subtle and gradual, but I have no doubt this is where we are heading in one form or another and when all the creases are ironed out, it will be a good thing for retail and the customer in the long-term.”

The age verification technology is currently being rolled out into some supermarket stores across the UK, with the trials finishing in May.