Face-mask recognition has arrived—for better or worse

Video by Mark Thiessen and Rebecca Hale, National Geographic/Face-mask recognition technology courtesy Tryolabs
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Video by Mark Thiessen and Rebecca Hale, National Geographic/Face-mask recognition technology courtesy Tryolabs

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Public shaming over not wearing a face mask started almost as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic itself. In February, some provinces and municipalities in China made it mandatory to wear masks when in public. News reports soon followed of residents and police chastising the non-compliant, a trend that’s now seen globally.

When Akash Takyar heard those early stories trickle out of China, he was shocked at how things were being handled, and he wondered if his software company—LeewayHertz—could offer a more peaceful way. Takyar recognized how important it is to wear a mask to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But rather than leave members of the public to monitor each other, he wanted to develop a computer program that could look at images and detect whether people are wearing masks.

His San Francisco-based company is one of many now pioneering mask recognition as a way to get people to comply for the public good. So far, masks have been confounding traditional facial recognition software—but these new machine learning tools could conceivably be used in private...

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