Technology & Science

Getting scanned for a pint: How facial recognition technology is being used in a London pub

In a pub in London, England, complicated technology is taking on a simple problem: waiting for a pint in lines that can sometimes be unruly.

Bar uses software to create a digital queue and stop people from cutting in line

Facial recognition software to prevent people from cutting in line is being used at a bar in London, England. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

In a pub in London, England, complicated technology is taking on a simple problem: waiting for a pint in lines that can sometimes be unruly. It uses facial recognition software to form a digital queue and prevent people from cutting in line.

A large TV screen is mounted above the bar with a live video feed showing the people waiting for a drink. Beside the image of each customer, a number pops up to indicate where they are in the line. 

"We just want to make the experience more frictionless and fair," said John Wyllie, managing director of DataSparQ, the company behind the technology called A.I. Bar. 

Bartenders are equipped with tablets and can keep track of the queue, eliminating people from the line as they are served.

Wylie said the product launch at the Underdog bar is an opportunity to see how people feel about it.

"Do people feel it's appropriate to have their face used in this way? How much information do they need to feel comfortable giving their consent?"

John Wyllie, managing director of DataSparQ, says the software is about making the pub experience frictionless and fair. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The company says video collected at the pub never leaves the building and is deleted every evening. 

But some worry about the risk to personal information posed by the techology.

"Is there such a thing as delete?" said Philippa Foster Back, director of the Institute of Business Ethics in London.

She believes that the company isn't storing data, but said there are always risks people need to be aware of.

"Somebody might be a hacker in the bar. They will come in and sit down at the bar during the day and hack all the information before it gets deleted."

Watch a demonstration of A.I. Bar 

DataSparQ's John Wylie explains to the CBC's Renée Filippone how the A.I. Bar system works to make long lines at the pub more manageable 0:50

Foster Back said more regulations are needed to deal with facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and that governments are behind the curve. 

"Technology is just leaps and bounds ahead of where our understanding of it is and our appreciation of its good and perhaps also its bad."  

Bar owner Sammy Forway believes the technology will help keep things more orderly, which is good for staff on a busy night.

"It will help us serve people quicker and effectively sell more drinks," he said.

James Richard, a tech industry worker who went to the launch, sees advantages to A.I. Bar.

"Everyone has been in a situation where you have to get your elbows out and ... squeeze past — it's annoying." 

But he also cautions that people need to be aware when such technology is being used.

Philippa Foster Back says people need to be aware of the risk to personal information when using facial recognition technology. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"It might be a slippery slope in the future," said Richards, who has concerns about surveillance technology in public areas. 

"I am OK with it as long as I know it's happening."

The program also flags if someone appears to be underage.

Wylie said they are looking to expand the functionality of A.I. Bar so it can manage bills as well.

"Rather than you put your card behind the bar and get given a piece of plastic that's your bar tab, you can just point to all the faces of the people in your group and anyone in that group can order against your tab."

About the Author

Renée is a CBC correspondent based in London, U.K. She has spent a decade with the organization in a number of roles, including senior business reporter, weekend news anchor, television and radio reporter, associate producer, program director and others.