This Company Is Putting Face-Tracking Ad Tablets in the Back of Ubers

As drivers struggle to make ends meet, companies are eager to take advantage of the situation
June 23, 2021, 1:00pm
This Company Is Putting Face-Tracking Ad Tablets in the Back of Ubers
Spencer Platt / Staff

Last week, Alfi—a self-described "AI enterprise SaaS platform company powering computer vision with machine learning models"—announced a deal to give Uber and Lyft drivers 10,000 digital tablets equipped with cameras that will display ads, catalogue information about riders, and track their reactions to content.

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As part of a larger program, Alfi is offering ride-hail drivers a free tablet that it claims will use computer vision to "recognize the demographics of the rider" and serve them "personalized content as well as advertisements." Drivers are promised a revenue share of "up to $350" so long as passengers actually engage with the content or ads.

According to a press release announcing the rollout of the program, Alfi uses computer vision and its ads are tailored “by age, gender, geography, demographics, brand behavior and interests'' and the tablet “informs the advertisers that someone viewed their ad, the number of views, and each viewer's reaction to the ad.”  According to the release, “hundreds'' of Ubers and Lyfts in Miami have installed the tablets. 

Alfi’s algorithm tracks “small facial cues,” according to the company’s website. On LinkedIn, its chief revenue officer admits that Alfi is “utilizing computer vision for facial recognition.” Still, throughout its marketing material, Alfi says it "respects user privacy; without tracking, storing cookies, or using identifiable personal information,” and is compliant with the European GDPR privacy law. 

“Imagine with me that you are a 25 year old female wearing Gucci sunglasses and you're walking through an airport and the content of every kiosk or every digital screen you see is specifically curated for you,” said Paul Pereira, chief executive of Alfi, in one presentation. “So instead of seeing ads for retirement homes or ads for wheelchairs—which are not really relevant to you as a 25 year old female—instead what you're seeing are lady's fashionable wear and designer sunglasses specifically curated for you.”

Uber, Lyft, and Alfi did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

Extra income for drivers who are regularly precarious is always welcome, especially when driver incentives by ride-hail companies have proven insufficient and the companies seem to be growing their cut of increasingly expensive rides these last few months. Indeed, Alfi went public last month and seems to be hoping to accelerate its growth by taking advantage of an anticipated increase in ride-hail demand so that its adtech platform can flourish.

Whether or not the technology behind the advertising really works is besides the point, as it’s hard not to read this as an attempt by another industry to profit from the particular vulnerability and exploitation of ride-hail drivers. Nationwide, ride-hail companies are hiking prices while keeping driver pay at the same or lower levels. At the same time, driver incentives rolled out by the companies have been insufficient to attract more workers or bring them closer to making ends meet.