NSW police members face off in mug match test

Thirty-eight members of the NSW police have superior facial recognition abilities, according to research by forensic psychologists at the University of New South Wales.

More than 1,600 members of the police force were selected to undertake a series of online face matching tasks and memory tests.

The police officers sat three face recognition and memory tests: the Glasgow Face Matching Test (testing the ability to remember unfamiliar faces); the Cambridge Face Memory Test (where participants decide if pairs of images are the same person, or different) and the UNSW Face Test (a more challenging test designed to identify super-recognisers).

A group of 38 were identified as ‘super-recognisers’ – the name for people with exceptional face recognition abilities – performing well above average in all three tests.

Those officers were given a further testing, for example to see whether they could remember the specific context faces were remembered from.

Associate Professor David White from UNSW who led the study says while super-recognisers are more accurate in their recollections – potentially by more than 20% – that doesn’t mean they have perfect recall.

“What our research also reveals is that super-recognisers do make errors, even in tasks that do not involve memory,” White says.

“Even when comparing two high-quality images side-by-side – for example a person’s current passport photo to a selfie image taken on a camera phone – super-recognisers made errors  20% [of the time] on average and even the very best super-recogniser made errors 8% [of the time].”

He adds that while artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly being used for face recognition, human abilities are still superior.

“Police already use this technology in Australia. When the police are using it for investigation they’ve often got a poor quality image and then use that image to search a massive database – all AI can do is throw up the most faces that are similar. It can’t say definitively that is the same person or not, so this is why we still need humans to make the final call.”

The results of the study are published in PLOS One.

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