Lord Sugar's OptimEyes system will track your face and eyeballs

Now when we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will gaze back, and come to know us.

As the amount of consumer data in the world proliferates like bacterial mass in a petri dish, companies expect to see more and more of it before committing to advertising spend.

Rather than just plastering brand names on any physical space and hoping for the best, marketers need hard, numerical reassurance from media platforms to prove their campaigns will deliver the right return on investment.

Measured talk of “bang for yer buck” has been de rigueur for some time in the world of online advertising, where the nature of the medium has afforded advertisers increasingly precise information on who is clocking their brand, when they are doing it, and what their online habits are.

But until now, meatspace marketing has largely relied on best guesses to calibrate public exposure to ads.

Enter Lord Sugar and Amscreen, the digital signage business he chairs, which is rolling out the dystopic-sounding OptimEyes system to its 6,000 display screens worldwide. OptimEyes screens will watch you as you watch them; analysing your face and recording for advertisers your age, gender, location and hunger for emptying your wallet.

How wonderful.

The type of technology we all thought was desperately creepy when it started appearing in living room corners via the Xbox Kinect add-on is now actively evaluating our commercial potential, rather than just animating charming cartoon homunculi of us in pretend sports.

When we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will now gaze back into us. And it will come to know us.

While OptimEyes is a fantastic business idea, and has the potential to revolutionise display advertising if it works as claimed, I would hope we can all come to the further consensus that it feels downright bone-deep horrible. 

Particularly troubling is the system’s ability to tell the sex of the person glancing at an ad. Gender-focused advertising is one of the great enablers of sexism as a societal norm, and this sort of scrutiny will only give advertisers more reason to presume our wants and needs based on our groinal architecture.

But there is a way round this.

A friend of mine, frothing with irritation at the saccharine weight-loss marketing that Facebook thought someone of her chromosomal persuasion would be desperate to see, recently changed her status to Male.

Immediately, everything was paintball weekends, virile deodorant, and diagrams showing her how to make her lower body look like two yorkie bars wrapped in parma ham. It was no better, but at least less presumptive and personally condescending.

Her small but perfectly formed act of rebellion came to mind when reading about OptimEyes, and gave me a flash of inspiration regarding how to stop this new technology dictating The Way The World Works.

Every member of the British public should carry one of these in a pocket, ready to slap it on and stare directly into the camera as they pass an Amscreen monitor:

Then, like Medusa looking into her own petrifying reflection in Perseus’ shield, Sugar’s abyss can gaze right back at its own mug.

Lord Sugar's new company will track user's faces. Photograph: Getty Images.

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.