Bring the nightmarish totalitarian future of Orwell’s 1984 a little bit closer with this new and inexpensive computer vision idea!


Futurists and sci-fi authors have suggested many technologies that took decades to become practical, but did eventually arrive, such as:

  • The flat panel display
  • Tablet computers
  • Videophones
  • Machine translation
  • Computers that can defeat a human at go and chess
  • Wristwatch phones (e.g. the “Dick Tracy” wristwatch two-way radio, later given video capabilities as well)

But, some predictions haven’t come true despite the required technology already existing. For example, see this yet-to-be-realized future promised in George Orwell’s 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”


The capability now exists to both monitor people at all times (thanks to cheap cameras) and have a computer interpret the results (thanks to face-recognition algorithms).

This can be used for various purposes: it’s usually promoted for “tracking down criminals” or “finding kidnapped children,” but it can also be used to proactively detect thoughtcrimes in potentially subversive citizens.

For this application, all we need is:

  • A propaganda poster (existing technology)
  • A video camera (existing technology)
  • A computer program that can distinguish human facial expressions (existing technology)

The technique is simple and cheap: first, a camera is placed next to a propaganda poster (Figure 1, left). A computer watches the video feed and classifies the people it sees into two categories: people who saw the propganda poster and smiled (patriotic citizens) and people who saw it and frowned (potential subversives).

Fig. 1: Left: the propaganda-and-camera setup. Right: video feeds from the camera, along with the algorithm’s interpretation of the footage.

Can computers make mistakes? Let’s assume not. And even if they do, there can always be some perfunctory human review on top of the computer’s decision.


This system would also help people find lost pets, let people know which of their neighbors attend the same churches or mandatory state-sponsored rallies (so they can hang out afterward and become friends), and many other beneficial features.

PROS: Helps realize the high-tech future promised by the fiction of the past. And if someone opposes this system, it’s easy to refute their concerns by saying “Wow… I guess you don’t care about kidnapped children, huh.”

CONS: Luddites might still be hard to convince to approve of this monitoring, but they’ll change their tune when the surveillance system helps them remember where they parked their cars!