Biometrics cartoon

Collaboration will help biometrics community fulfil its potential

A new IET journal will bring together researchers in the disparate but booming discipline of biometrics.

Say the word 'biometrics' and for many people it will probably conjure up images of high-tech crime dramas and science-fiction thrillers. But the fact is that biometrics technologies – for example, automated fingerprint-recognition, iris scanning and voice recognition – have reached a level of maturity where viable practical applications are both possible and increasingly available.

Furthermore, almost all independent predictions of market trends in biometrics suggest that this industry will increasingly grow on a worldwide scale.

However, despite the fact that increasing numbers of governments and companies are turning to biometrics, a gap often remains between what happens in the research laboratory and what is required to turn good ideas into practical systems.

It isn't all bad news. There are already some good links between academia and the biometrics industry, and there is a healthy track record of innovative, fast-growing companies spinning out from universities in the UK and elsewhere.

But, in my view, opportunities are still being missed for closer collaboration between academia and industry that could deliver big benefits for all stakeholders.

What is the cause of these missed opportunities? Exact answers are always difficult to pinpoint, but it may be that it has been caused in part by the very diversity and intellectual richness of biometrics itself.

The goal of biometrics is to develop technologies that can automatically identify people through the measurement of physiological or behavioural characteristics, and this involves a range of different skills and disciplines, from human biology to the mathematics of pattern recognition, the complexities of computer programming and systems engineering.

Add to this the wide range of groups who could be interested in how biometrics will affect the real world, and matters are complicated further. It could be a small-business owner who cares about security, or it could be the Indian government attempting to implement an ID programme for all 1.2 billion of its citizens.

All of these interested parties have their own point of view, different requirements and perhaps a specific element of biometrics that fascinates them. The outcome is a field of study that is unusually varied, even by the standards of modern interdisciplinary research. Of course, diversity itself is a strength, not a weakness, but it can present challenges.

It feels as though we have been lacking a forum where all sides of the biometrics community can share information and create opportunities to collaborate. The new IET Biometrics journal, which I edit, aims to be a forum for that sort of meeting of minds – I'm hoping to receive papers from both university academics and engineers in the industrial sector – but we need more places where people can pool ideas and learn about cutting-edge developments. I wonder whether members of the biometrics community think that enough of these interactions and conversations, even on the printed page, are taking place?

I often say that now is the most exciting time for biometrics. Many of us would argue that there's never been a greater need for reliably establishing or verifying individuals' identities, not just because of the obvious potential threats to security and opportunities for criminal activity, but also because of how the technical world is changing the way we live our lives.

But the economic uncertainty and budget cuts that have affected most Western nations in recent years – and which look set to continue – have created some difficulties not just for the biometrics research community but also for its industrial base. The economic situation makes the case for closer links even more powerful. It's clear that we'll be much stronger together.

In my view biometrics is likely to be one of the boom industries of the 21st century. Encouraging greater collaboration and co-operation between academia and industry is the best way to achieve this. 

Professor Michael Fairhurst is editor-in-chief of the journal IET Biometrics ( and Professor of Computer Vision at the University of Kent.

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