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Posted: April 25, 2013

The futurist: We’re watching you

Monitoring people from space

Thomas Frey

In the late 1980s, I was an engineer working as part of an IBM team to build a mobile satellite command and control center for monitoring missile launches from space. This contract was part of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system.

Whenever a missile is launched, the heat plume coming out of the back of the rocket produces a distinct heat signature instantly detectable by satellites with infrared sensors.

The technology we were using more than 25 years ago could instantly distinguish between types of rockets, calculate trajectory, and give information on time of impact.

Since those early years of working with infrared sensors, I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to monitor people from space by tracking their personal heat signatures.

Two overarching trends that get little attention today are those of rapidly increasing precision and awareness. As both travel up the exponential growth curves of the emerging big data industry, what inevitably becomes possible is an ability to distinguish a person’s identity from a distance, even space.

On the surface, this may be a frightening prospect. Having someone know where I am at any moment of the day, does indeed make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

But at the same time, there is an undeniable convenience factor. If a person is suffering a heart attack or stroke, being kidnapped, or otherwise in a condition of extreme stress, a monitoring system that can shave minutes off emergency response times can mean the difference between life and death.

As with many of today’s emerging technologies we have to sort the good from the bad. Here are a few thoughts on what may happen in the future. 

The History of Biometrics

Biometrics is a term that refers to the identification of humans by a certain physical characteristic or trait. It’s often used with computer systems to validate a person’s identity.

One of the earliest forms of biometric tracking came with fingerprints. The earliest cataloging of fingerprints dates back to 1891 when Juan Vucetich started collecting fingerprints of criminals in Argentina. 

Over the decades a number of other biometric systems have been developed around everything from voice recognition, to DNA, to keystroke and hand print behavior.

The 2002 film Minority Report brought attention to Iris/Retina scanning technologies for both personal identification and point of sale transactions. The main character changes his identity by having his eyes transplanted, and later accesses a security system using one of the removed eyes.

Recently, Renato Zenobi, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, discovered a new area of science – breathprinting. By using a mass spectrometer to analyze the breath of 11 individuals, four times a day over nine days, he was able to identify the unique molecules in each breath sample and determine both the health characteristics and the identity of the individual.

As the field of biometrics advances, we will see a number of personal identification systems that can be observed from a distance, both by drones and satellites.

Can an infrared signature of a human body be person-specific?

The answer to this question is still an unequivocal “maybe.”

Infrared radiation is made up of photons with wavelengths that vary from a little less than 1 micron to about 1 millimeter. Since everything from animals, to trees, to cars, and highways all emit photons, the first challenge will be to separate human heat signatures from everything else.

It will be tricky to separate direct emissions from reflections. If, as example, you were sitting on a seat for a long period and then walked away, the seat would retain a similar heat signature for a short period of time.

Even if we can account for all of those issues, we still don’t know if that infrared signature is 100% unique to that individual. Complicating things further, the clothing we wear, the food we eat, and our current level of activity all have a bearing on our ability to discriminate one person from the next.

Since photons are just light at a lower frequency, a person’s shape could only be resolved to the resolution limits of the sensor system. The higher the resolution of the sensors, the more accurately a person would come into focus.

Even with a high res system, variables like the person’s state of health, their metabolic and emotional state as well as their physiologic response to external conditions (extreme cold, for example) will cause variations in thermal signatures.

For these reasons, it’s unlikely that an infrared-only heat signature will be sufficient for identification. However, tying infrared sensors to other biometric monitors is something that will happen sooner or later.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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