Japanese Vending Machines Become Ageist Robots

By Lizzie Buchen | May 13, 2008 2:36 pm

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Japan’s legendary vending machines dispense everything from batteries and hot ramen to alcohol, cigarettes, porn, and panties purportedly worn by school girls. But these instant gratification sin machines aren’t selling their wares ad libitum—well, at least not all of them.

While porn and alcohol appear to be sold on the honor system, Japan began regulating the sale of cancer sticks in March this year with RFID-embedded age-verification cards (which, conveniently, can also be used to purchase the smoky treats). These cards have proven unpopular because they involve filling out applications and mailing in personal identification papers—and, like driver’s licenses, are too easy for underage smokers to “borrow.” Now, Japan hopes to roll out a higher-tech—and far more dubious—age-verification system: cameras that determine your age by analyzing your face.

The new system takes a mug shot and compares your facial features—wrinkles around the eyes, bone structure, and skin sags—with those of over 100,000 people, ensuring that the machine only vends to people over the age of 20 (or just 19 year-olds who smoke a lot). In an earlier test with 500 people ranging from their teens to their 60s, the software was able to identify adults with 90 percent accuracy, while the other 10 percent fell into a “grey zone” and were prompted to insert their driving licenses.

Never mind the creepiness of vending machines—which can already walk, and kill more people every year than sharks—scrutinizing your face, but the accuracy seems pretty suspect. How can you really compare the facial features of a small Japanese man to, say, an overweight white girl with a lot of make-up? Then again, Japan has a way of taking—shall we say— “questionable” ideas and making them work.

Image: midorisyu/Flickr

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