This article was published on May 14, 2020

Uber introduces AI to make sure its drivers wear face masks

Riders will also have to wear masks, but won't need to use the AI

Uber introduces AI to make sure its drivers wear face masks Image by: Stock Catalog

Uber is making face masks mandatory  — and will use AI to ensure drivers follow the rules.

From Monday, every time drivers go online they’ll have to take a selfie, which a computer vision algorithm will scan to check if they’re wearing a mask.

Passengers will also have to wear masks — but they won’t need to prove it by taking a selfie. Instead, they’ll confirm they’re wearing a face cover by completing a checklist of safety requirements.

[Read: Automated facial recognition breaches GDPR, says EU digital chief]

Sachin Kansal, Uber’s head of driver and safety product, said this is because the company already had a driver verification feature to use as a framework: the Real-Time ID Check.

“We do not have a similar framework on the rider’s side, and it was one of our goals to launch this as fast as possible, Kansal said yesterday at an online press conference. “That is one of the reasons why you’ve seen us do that on the driver’s side.”

That could alarm critics of the Real-Time ID Check, which has a record of failing to recognize transgender faces. However, Uber says that unlike the Real-Time ID Check, the new system will only detect the mask, and won’t process biometric data, or compare the selfies to other driver photos.

Beyond that explanation, Uber has provided few details on how the system works — and what will prevent attempts to trick the AI. There are also no specific masks that drivers must wear; it just has to cover the face from the bridge of the nose to the chin.

The masks will be compulsory for drivers in the US, Canada, India, and “most of Europe and Latin America”  — but not in the UK, where masks still aren’t mandatory in crowded spaces.

New rules

The AI system is one of a range of new safety features that Uber hopes will bring customers back to the ride-hailing business.

Before accepting trips, drivers will also have to confirm they don’t have COVID-19 symptoms, that they’ve sanitized their vehicle, and that they wash their hands regularly. In addition, Uber wants them to keep all front seats empty and open windows for ventilation.

On their way to a pickup point, drivers will get a reminder saying riders should wear a face cover, sit in the back, and open a window. If the rider isn’t wearing a mask, the driver can cancel the trip, citing “no face cover or mask” as the reason.

Passengers will have to complete a similar checklist before they search for a driver. Repeat offenders risk getting banned from the platform.

Uber says the new policy will be maintained until the end of June, when it will be reassessed based on local public health needs. But the company’s repeated references to a “new normal” suggest that the new rules will remain in place for a long time yet.

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