It’s perhaps the most defining trope of the many Mission: Impossible movies: Someone mistakes a character for a certain person, until that individual’s hyper-realistic mask gets ripped off. Surprise! Except maybe not so much anymore, since it’s by now a tired plot device.
Perhaps more surprising is the masks’ invasion of everyday life. Meticulously handcrafted, hyper-realistic silicone masks used to be so expensive, they were only available to Hollywood. The price of a good mask has since come down to around $1,000, and scofflaws have taken notice. In 2011, the FBI offered a $20,000 reward for assistance in finding the Geezer Bandit, someone who wore an old-man mask in a string of bank robberies in Southern California.
Now, researchers are bringing the hyper-realistic deception out of the real world and into the lab. They’re finding that people are really, really bad at spotting the masks. That’s troubling because for one, we as humans should be great at analyzing faces, given how critical they are to communication. And two, it means more criminals could be concealing their identities and getting away with capers than we’ll ever know.
We sat down with Rob Jenkins, a psychologist at the University of York, to talk about the implications of Mission: Impossible made real, and how humans and machines might learn to fight back.
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