China possesses outstanding facial recognition technology and is eager to supply it to the rest of the world. Along with its own political standards.
In the shadow of existential anxiety, smaller threats can grow unnoticed and unchecked. Take for example the irrational fear that artificial intelligence will grow smarter than we are and someday keep us humans as pets. “Those who are afraid of artificial intelligence in general are not paying attention to what is really happening right now,” said tech-investor Peter Thiel at a conference in Miami a few days ago. And what is really happening right now? The entirety of humankind is being scanned by means of facial recognition technologies. Thiel calls them “communist totalitarian technologies.”
When he accuses humankind of looking for the dangers of AI in all the wrong places, Peter Thiel is a problematic witness for the prosecution. After all, he has stakes in Palantir and Clearview – two technology companies that also use or are developing AI and facial analysis systems. Thiel is also far from the first technology insider to raise the alarm. But he's right.
Clearview AI, which bills itself as the world's largest facial recognition network, searches the internet for human faces and has built up a database containing three billion of them. When you upload a photo into the Clearview app, it shows you all the pictures its algorithm can find of that person on the internet, along with the corresponding internet addresses. The app works not only with police mugshots and the bio-metrical photos typically used on passports, but also with private snapshots culled from social media. In the U.S. a number of law enforcement agencies are already employing Clearview AI’s technology. In Canada, on the other hand, the app is banned.
Two other significant start-ups are based in China: Megvii Technology and SenseTime. Both are specialized in facial recognition and are heavily funded by Beijing. They are part of a nationwide network of technology companies that are using AI-powered image recognition to build a perfect, seamless surveillance system. SenseTime works closely with the Chinese police, and had a long involvement with a company implementing technological surveillance of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.
A capitalist country, an authoritarian country – and a technology that can find and track anyone, regardless of where, when, or what political context, using the unique characteristics of their face. This doesn’t just sound dystopian. This is a development with the potential to change our world forever.
Against this background it’s not surprising that international experts have been arguing back and forth for some time about who will win the AI race – the USA or China? But the answer is irrelevant for our future. Even without complex technology, the future will be different from what we want for a free and democratic society: The existing standards for facial recognition are already entirely sufficient to ensure that, and they are already being exported to the rest of the world by China and its tech companies. In most places, the technology is being used not to consistently monitor the populace and issue draconian punishments, but to control access to workplaces, facilitate contactless payment and streamline airport security checks – all very convenient, and also beneficial for public health and hygiene, particularly during the Covid epidemic. But what about the health of democracy?
Convenience wins out over privacy, according to a familiar pattern in the digital world. Therefore facial recognition will eventually become ubiquitous. China is just exporting technological applications; they will be embedded in the system later. Follow the technology, and you will understand what kind of country you will be living in.
I recently boarded a plane at JFK airport in New York. I didn't need to show a passport or carry a plane ticket; boarding was handled by means of facial recognition. It was fast and convenient. And incidentally, it wasn’t an Air China or United Airlines flight. It was Lufthansa.
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