Can a simple selfie really tell you when you're going to die? Not quite, but the emerging field of facial analytics can give you and your insurance company an educated guess.
We all remember Microsoft's brief sojourn in facial analytics earlier this year, the 'How Old' website which guessed the age of people on social media with varying degrees of success. But chronological age is not what matters here; instead it is the rate at which a person is biologically aging, which can be affected by their lifestyle and environment.
According to a recent study, facial features are the best indicator of this 'true' age. The Face Aging Group at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington have built a 'Face My Age' programme which scans faces in photographs for biological age markers, and then extrapolates life expectancy based on an array of personal information such as age, gender, ethnicity, smoker or non-smoker etc. Of course, the software can be fooled by makeup and cosmetic surgery, but by and large the main takeaway is that if the programme thinks you look old for your age, you should probably start making some major lifestyle changes.
Face My Age has even been able to detect warning signs for mental illness such as depression. "This is a revolution in technology," says Jay Olshansky, who worked on the programme. "The face gives you clues into potential risks. When they're added together with other data, they can become a very powerful tool for insurers."
That said, don't expect any miracles. "It's not like you can transform somebody who is destined to die at sixty into a centenarian," Olshansky tells the New Yorker, somewhat pessimistically. "You have to have won the genetic lottery at birth." However, his colleague, the Face Aging Group's Director, Karl Ricanek, believes that regularly checking your selfies on the site can act as better motivation than any personal trainer to keep up your personal fitness and well-being, and "order the chicken sandwich rather than the super-deluxe burger."
A growing number of insurance companies are investing in this software, which will allow them to determine all manner of health factors from a single photo. This in turn can help them to calculate risks and estimate that person's life expectancy before offering personal cover. So it stands to reason that submitting a selfie to insurers along with all of your other vital information could, at some point, become standard practice.
Not everybody is thrilled by this prospect, especially as it means certain high-risk individuals are less likely to be approved for insurance. "I think this is very creepy," says Marc Gander, founder of the Consumer Action Group. "There doesn't seem to be much in it for the customer, and it leaves them at risk of things becoming far more difficult and expensive. It essentially seems to be insurance companies saying we will only cover you if we know you will never claim." And then of course, there is the omnipresent issue of privacy, and who exactly owns all of the information collected by pieces of software like Face My Age.
But there's no need to panic just yet. While companies may be looking into the various uses of the technology, insurers are inherently low-risk creatures and can be trusted to stick to their tried-and-tested underwriting processes for the time being. Speaking to MailOnline, a spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers confirmed this: "While interesting, it's unlikely the technology would give insurers better information about a person's medical history to accurately measure their risk."
Still, it's a fascinating notion; that one day your phone will be able to take one look at you and suggest you drink more water, eat more of whatever the super-food of the moment is, and head to your doctor for a check-up.
This article originally appeared at Ogilvydo.