AI Development in China is Taking an Insidious Turn

Facial recognition is now used routinely in China for shopping and to access some public services, Science magazine reports.  

For example, at a growing number of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in China, customers can authorize digital payment by facial scan. Baidu's facial recognition systems confirm passenger identity at certain airport security gates. Recent AI advances have made it possible to identify individuals not only in up-close still photos, but also in video—a far more complex scientific task.

China's attitude toward such advances contrasts with the U.S. response. When the U.S. Customs and Border Protection last May revealed plans to use facial matching to verify the identities of travelers on select flights leaving the United States, a public debate erupted. In an analysis, Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., warned of the potential for "mission creep": With new AI technologies, "you can subject thousands of people an hour to face recognition when they're walking down the sidewalk without their knowledge, let alone permission or participation."

In China the government is already deploying facial recognition technology in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region in western China where tensions between ethnic groups erupted in deadly riots in 2009. Reporters from The Wall Street Journal who visited the region late last year found surveillance cameras installed every hundred meters or so in several cities, and they noted facial recognition checkpoints at gas stations, shopping centers, mosque entrances, and elsewhere.

"This is the kind of thing that makes people in the West have nightmares about AI and society," says Subbarao Kambhampati, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in Palo Alto and a computer scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe. In China, he says, "people are either not worried, or not able to have those kinds of conversations."