I love my wife's elbows. And my kids’ little toes. But when I have been away on travel for a week and return home, it is not their elbows and toes that makes me feel at home. It is their happy, smiling faces that I connect with when I see them waiting for me to come in the door.
When we meet people on the street, it is not their elbows or little toes that we use to identify them. It is their faces that tell us who they are. We are so used to looking at faces—happy faces, sad faces, faces we know, and faces we don’t—that it is easy to forget the significance of the face as a person’s greatest indicator of personal identity. The human face is immensely practical as a form of recognition but also incredibly intimate as the way we know and understand each other—and the Bible says one day we’ll intimately know God this way.
Our faces, our identity
Facial recognition is no longer limited to people but is coming into its own in the world of technology and artificial intelligence. Last year, I typed in a password to log in to my computer; today, I use my fingerprint. But tomorrow the mere presence of my face will alert my computer I am ready to work. According to Counterpoint Research, thanks to Apple’s Face ID, facial recognition will be the primary biometric for smartphone unlocks by 2020.
Smartphone unlocks and computer logins are nothing compared to where we are headed once facial recognition integrates with artificial intelligence. Taking a cue from Robocop and other sci-fi dystopian stories, Chinese authorities earlier this year unveiled new sunglasses that utilize facial recognition software connected to a Chinese database. In one train station in Zhengzhou, these sunglasses positively identified 7 criminal suspects and 26 individuals traveling with fake documents. The test was so successful China has begun a slow rollout of the new tech. This follows a growing trend in China toward surveillance technology where authorities use facial biometrics everywhere from airports to public restrooms.
Facial recognition coupled with artificial intelligence will make it easier to catch the bad guys—creating smart, safe cities, but its potential for oppression and misuse is substantial. Already, Chinese authorities use facial recognition and CCTV technology to monitor ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. We can easily extrapolate other dangers. If a country like China can use AI to catch criminals and monitor minorities, such a country could also easily use it to monitor members of religious groups, especially leaders, missionaries or aid workers.
For those of us living in Western democracies, this heavy-handed use of technology feels a little foreign. But what happens when facial recognition-equipped sunglasses start to pop up on eBay with the ability to scan publicly available Facebook photos, granting users the ability to ID people as they pass by? It will be a marketer’s paradise to know the name and likes of a person they see walking past their mall kiosk. Perhaps a stalker’s paradise, also, revealing to a casual observer personal information such as our credit scores or our political party affiliations.
These examples point to growing ethical concerns about the use of facial recognition. For example, unlike fingerprints, which a person must submit to in order for others to obtain, facial recognition may take place without the person’s permission.
Yet, facial recognition, at least currently, suffers from a few inherent weaknesses such as the need for high-resolution image capture and access to the right databases. And then there is the question of accuracy: While there are studies that support a sense of overwhelming precision in the technology, others suggest that it is not always accurate across the gender and racial spectrum. Yet, it may prove in the long run to be the most effective biometric to identify people.
Written all over our faces
The technology may be new, but the idea that it is based on speaks a great deal to our human nature. The Roman statesman Cicero wrote that the face is the image of the mind, which is where we get the expression “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” By our faces, we not only identify each other, we identify how each other feels and what each other thinks. When people feel joy or sadness, we say “it is written all over their face.”
As babies, we study our parents’ faces. As we age, we become adept at learning about other people from studying their faces. For example, as a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests, we can tell if a person is rich or poor just by looking at their face. No AI needed.
Studying the face to understand the person has long been a goal of the scientific minded. From Aristotle to Charles Darwin to modern psychology, the face is the doorway to what lies behind. In The Psychology of Facial Expression, James A. Russell and José Miguel Fernández-Dols explain that perhaps the most important recent discovery about human emotions is that our emotional views are inextricably linked to our physical facial expressions.
If we feel angry, our face will show anger—and if our face shows anger, we will feel angry.
That the face is a powerful biometric is made clear when we go somewhere new. We look for people we know—and notice new people who we don’t—based on their faces. We move toward those with open faces and shy away from those whose faces seem closed.
Seeing God, face-to-face
Biblical writers frequently noted the importance of the face for identification and communication. Often, the face served as a euphemism for the identity or presence of a human being; for example, Pharaoh tells Moses that if he sees his face again, it will be his death (Ex. 10:28–29). The biblical writers also speak of people turning their face from God as a way to indicate that these people do not want to be known by God and want to hide from him (e.g., 2 Chron. 29:6). Encountering the burning bush, Moses hid his face so that God would not know him (Ex. 3:6).
The original plan for humanity was to enjoy God and each other, face to face. Only the fall brought with it the temptation to hide our faces and to disguise our true selves. Sin also means we cannot take seeing and knowing God lightly (Ex. 33:20). Salvation means that one day we will be unshackled from these limitations, and in that glory, we will see our Creator face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).
Perhaps the greatest blessing for us in this life is that our Creator wants to look into our faces—not our elbows or little toes—to know who we are. He wants to see our anger and our joy. In fact, we are to bless each other by hoping that “the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6:25–26).
As the technology of facial recognition proliferates, there will be a natural desire to turn away from the face of the camera analyzing us, to protect our identity and our person. In doing so we must not hide our faces from other people, who care about us and for whom our face is the source of knowing us. And we must not hide our faces from God, who cares for us and invites us to know him, that we might “look full in his wonderful face.”
Douglas Estes is an assistant professor and director of the DMin program at South University, Columbia in South Carolina. He is the author and editor of numerous books.