"It was this model that made us think, if we've captured something about the face-earning process, maybe we can use this same process to boost performance in automatic face recognition," he said. "Basically, we were trying to build a model of familiarity into the machine."
In the study, researchers used the web site MyHeritage.com to test their theory. The Web site uses face recognition software called FaceVACS, which is currently being tested at the Sydney Airport. The database at MyHeritage consists of 30,000 photos of celebrities.
Burton and Jenkins say when they submitted photos of 25 male celebrities, the software only recognized half of them. When they submitted their "averaged" images, which were blended by their new program from 20 images, the site recognized 100 percent of them.
"We think there is a kind of a virtue to this approach," Jenkins said. "It's a technique; it's a not a device. We're just saying, keep the machines. If you feed them different input you can vastly improve performance."
But critics like Ngo point out that even if the technology was perfect, there are social and legal issues at stake, such as the public surveillance systems that would likely be implemented to use facial recognition technology, arguing that such public systems are an invasion of privacy and not a deterrent to violent crime.
Ngo also points out potential civil rights abuses if someone is arrested based on a misinformation in a database.
"Another problem is the databases that contain all this information. They have incorrect information and they have outdated information," she said. "Now there's technology that allows individual law enforcement officers or commercial entities to 'identify' innocent people as a 'criminals.' ... Just because it is new, does not mean that it should be used. We need to figure out what standards that we're going to use or whether or not the technology meets its goals."
Despite critics of facial recognition, Jenkins is hopeful that this technique could be helpful, not harmful.
"I would hope that it would solve some problems," he said. "The cost of misidentification can be so high that I think we have to ask ourselves, given that these systems are starting to be deployed anyway, do we want to deploy a system that's reliable or a system that's unreliable?"