How Facial Recognition Technology Is Different In Africa

There's a reason many Africans are wary of the identification technology: It doesn't work as well for people with dark skin. That's where Charlette N'Guessan, a young Ivorian researcher, comes in.

Charlette N'Guessan's chosen field, facial recognition, is largely unexplored in Africa
Charlette N'Guessan's chosen field, facial recognition, is largely unexplored in Africa
Marie de Vergès

ACCRA — She's not ashamed to say it: The coronavirus pandemic has been "a very good thing" for Charlette N'Guessan. The same goes for Africa's forward-looking tech entrepreneurs in general.

"With the challenges posed by COVID-19, the continent is waking up," the young Ivorian says. "People are thinking innovation, ideas, change. This crisis gives credibility to what we are doing."

It must be said that N'Guessan's chosen field — facial recognition — is largely unexplored in Africa. It also arouses a fair amount of suspicion, and for good reason: Existing algorithms, including the best out there, are less accurate at identifying individuals of color, as tests conducted in the United States have revealed an error rate five to 10 times higher for these populations.

It was partly to correct these biases that the 27-year-old N'Guessan joined forces in 2018 with three other computer engineers. They met at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) incubator in Accra, Ghana, where she was undergoing training in coding and entrepreneurship.

The start-up they founded has developed its own software, Bace API. To ensure that it would perform well with dark skin tones and be adaptable to the local market, the team relied on a very diverse data set, including a large sample of sub-Saharan African faces.

"In the beginning, we even practiced on the other members of the incubator," N'Guessan recalls with a laugh.

Cybersecurity is a problem everywhere in Africa and even more so in the financial sector.

The development of this solution is intended to respond to very concrete issues. In 2017, cybercrimes cost African economies $3.5 billion, according to the Kenyan-based consulting firm Serianu.

"Cybersecurity is a problem everywhere in Africa and even more so in the financial sector, because in our countries we have gone directly from cash to digital," says N'Guessan.

Ghanaian financial institutions are facing a massive problem of identity theft, and are losing hundreds of millions of dollars per year as a result, according to N'Guessan and her colleagues. To help combat the problem, Bace API provides banks and FinTech companies with a system to verify the identity of customers remotely using "live" (moving) photos to ensure that the person is real and not a robot.

This achievement earned N'Guessan the Africa Award from the Royal Academy of Engineering, a prestigious British institution that issues annual prizes for innovation. The recognition provided a welcome boost for the start-up, as did the grant money (nearly 28,000 euros) that came with the award.

Born in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's largest city, Charlette — "with an e, not an o," she says — grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Yopougon. Her father was a math teacher, and she has five sisters, all with the same first name... Charlette! "But each of us was given a middle name," she explains.

N'Guessan at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) incubator— Photo: Charlette N'Guessan Twitter

"I've always been encouraged to follow my path and to dream of great things," she says. "Probably because we were only girls at home, my father didn't see why we would have less interesting career plans than boys."

After studies in electronics and computer networks and internships in companies in the Plateau, Abidjan's business district, Charlette N'Guessan was selected to train at the renowned MEST incubator. She is one of the few French speakers to join.

It is in Ghana that she chose to focus on facial recognition, a discipline derived from Artificial Intelligence (AI). She says this decision was a gamble, as the technology, perceived as discriminatory, is the subject of much debate in Africa. What's more, fingerprint identification is already well ahead in many African countries. But the health crisis is changing that.

"Today, with what we have just gone through, everyone wants to have access to their services remotely," says N'Guessan.

She sees prospects in many areas: from education (with the implementation of online testing platforms) to individual passenger transportation (to facilitate the hiring of drivers) and public services, such as electoral processes that require extensive voter registration.

"We need more "made in Africa" solutions instead of products from elsewhere"

At present, Africa is lagging behind in the creation of start-ups and AI technologies. A Stanford University report suggests that as of 2018, the bulk of AI investment was concentrated in 20 countries around the world. Not one of those countries is in Africa.

Nevertheless, a few centers of excellence are beginning to emerge there. In Ghana, Google opened its first African AI research laboratory in early 2019. And in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences has launched a master's program dedicated to machine learning and AI, in partnership with Facebook and Google.

"We need more "made in Africa" solutions instead of products from elsewhere," says N'Guessan.

This plea echoes fears expressed across the continent, where people are concerned in particular over China deploying its surveillance technologies. In Zimbabwe, for example, the government has signed a cooperative agreement with CloudWalk Technology, the Chinese leader in the sector, to implement facial recognition on a large scale. And Huawei has developed numerous partnerships with various African countries to develop its "safe city" initiative, a project to "secure" cities through installing smart cameras.

For "ethical" reasons, Charlette N'Guessan does not want to venture into this field of public and police video surveillance. But there are plenty of other areas, she believes, where technologies developed by and for Africans can be of great use.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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