AI-powered surveillance might sound like the plot of a Spielberg film, but the technology is no longer science fiction. Machine learning is used to improve facial recognition algorithms, allowing law enforcement and first responders to quickly and accurately obtain information during an emergency. The technology is already in use in many public spaces and in the newest crop of home security devices.

AI-powered facial recognition raises important questions about privacy, but the technology has the potential to dramatically improve your safety.

Smarter surveillance

Video surveillance has existed for decades, but trawling through hours of recorded footage for a single individual or a single moment limits its usefulness. AI can bypass these limitations and search through surveillance footage for specific patterns at a rate that humans could never meet, potentially identifying threats, emergencies, or even individuals at a moment’s notice.

This technology is already in use today. In August 2017, the New York Department of Motor Vehicles revealed that AI-powered facial recognition technology was used to aid in over 4,000 arrests by utilizing the DMV’s database of driver’s license headshots. Video analysis is getting smarter too; a pilot program in Japan utilizes AI-powered surveillance systems in rail stations to identify anomalous behavior indicating intoxication or criminal behavior, heading off more serious incidents before they occur.

“We are recognizing a precursor pattern that may be associated with a crime that happens,” said Wesley Cobb, chief science officer for BRS Labs — the company responsible for similar cameras installed in Boston after the 2013 marathon bombing — in an interview with Bloomberg. Unusual loitering activity or trespassing can be automatically detected using behavior patterns, allowing a quicker response time when things escalate to a crime or emergency.

Home security

Like many revolutionary technologies, AI surveillance quickly made the jump to the home security market. Security cameras that use machine learning to track visitors in your home are already on the market from manufacturers like BuddyGuard. These devices use onboard AI systems to learn the faces of trusted visitors and family members, automating the process of threat detection.

The technology is effective enough to reliably recognize friends and family — even pets — and flag intruders or unexpected guests instantly. New systems like BuddyGuard’s Flare can even notify first responders autonomously in real time, drastically escalating response rates if someone breaks in. The technology has significant implications for home security, since these systems decrease subscription costs to human-monitored services, using the same principles of efficiency that make them so revolutionary in public spaces.

The end of privacy

The technology and potential applications of AI-powered facial recognition are teetering on the precipice of a big breakthrough. As the technology becomes less expensive to implement, it should quickly become ubiquitous in any public space with a security camera. Stadiums, airports, city streets, and just about any commercial business may one day automatically track your face and your behavior to watch for anomalous actions, effectively changing privacy as we know it.

The moral and ethical implications of this technology are staggering, and there could be very little you can do about it. Given the potential benefits to emergency response during a kidnapping, an act of terrorism, or even a petty crime like public drunkenness, these AI-powered surveillance systems are all but inevitable. The technology can dramatically improve safety, but the potential for abuse is high, and the implications for wrongful targeting are unsettling, to say the least.

Living in an AI world

If policies and practices align with the objectives for AI-powered surveillance, there’s huge promise in the technology. This surveillance doesn’t have to result in constant monitoring or a police state; effective usage and, ultimately, a human presence when critical decisions are made will be hugely important as this technology matures.

For homeowners looking to improve their personal safety, these technologies are relatively benign. An AI-powered home security device can let you know when your dog was last let out or alert you when your children get home from school. These practical applications highlight a brighter future for AI tech that provides convenience without Orwellian implications. Time will tell where the privacy thresholds surrounding AI tech ultimately settle — and whether the technology’s best intentions are met.

Emily Long is a writer who covers tech, home automation, and finance, with the occasional dive into health and wellness.