Do you know China is the largest face recognition vendor globally? EARLY LAST YEAR, THE Bangladeshi government began considering a plan from an unnamed Chinese company to build a smart city with infrastructure boosted by artificial intelligence on the Bay of Bengal. The high-tech city is still in the planning stages, but if it is approved, it might have face recognition technology that uses security cameras to find people who have gone missing or identify criminals in a crowd. Numerous Chinese cities already have many of these features.
The project is one of many that will help China become the world leader in facial recognition exports, according to research by Harvard and MIT professors that was published last week by the Brookings Institution, a famous think tank.
According to the research, Chinese companies are the global leaders in the sale of facial recognition technology, accounting for 201 export deals. US companies come in second with 128 deals. A total of 250 out of 1,636 export agreements using AI to 136 importing nations place China in the lead overall. The US was the second-largest exporter, with 215 AI deals.
The paper makes the case that these exports would allow other governments to increase their surveillance activities, thereby endangering the human rights of citizens. Martin Beraja, an economist at MIT who participated in the study and whose work focuses on democracy, argues that the fact that China exports to these nations “may kind of switch them to become more autocratic, when in fact they could become more democratic.”
Face recognition software may be used to unlock cellphones, authenticate users in apps, and locate friends in social media posts, among many other useful uses. The MIT-Harvard researchers concentrated on agreements incorporating “smart city” technology, which frequently uses face recognition to improve video surveillance. The investigation examined data stolen from Chinese AI firms and information on worldwide monitoring projects from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
US presidents and lawmakers have expressed alarm in recent years about China acquiring an advantage over the US in AI technology. The article appears to provide verifiable proof of one area where such change has already taken place.
The Center for New American Security associate scholar who researches the policy implications of AI, Alexandra Seymour, says it “bolsters the case for why we need to be placing limitations around this type of technology.”
In the US, there is rising bipartisan support for international controls on Chinese technology. The US administration implemented regulations under President Trump to limit the use of Huawei’s 5G technology in the US and abroad and targeted China’s AI companies with a chip embargo. The Biden administration imposed a more extensive chip ban that denies Chinese firms access to state-of-the-art semiconductor manufacturing technologies and has sanctioned Chinese face-recognition companies that are used to keep track of Uyghur Muslims.
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Sanctions against nations that import the technology may be one way to further restrict China’s facial recognition exports, according to Seymour. She does, however, add that in terms of controlling the use of facial recognition, the US must also set an example for the rest of the world.
The notion—promoted by the US government—that American technology innately represents principles of freedom and democracy is at risk of being undermined by the reality that the US is the second-largest exporter of facial recognition technology in the world. Muslims.
Although some localities have set restrictions on the use of the technology, there are no national rules that restrict or limit its use, which is increasing among US police departments. Some US businesses, including Clearview AI, have created and are exporting face recognition technologies that may link a person’s image from a surveillance camera to their online identities, a use case that civil liberties advocates claim illegally invades people’s privacy.
According to Seymour, regulating facial recognition use domestically and then providing alternatives to Chinese technology abroad may be the best way for the US to compete with China’s success in exporting the technology. “Talking about values can assist to design some of the restrictions that must be set on these technologies,” she says. But the prospects of the US Congress agreeing on meaningful limits to the technology look slim.
Because of their connections to governmental organizations that can supply vast volumes of images and significant financing for the development of the technology, Chinese companies have grown to dominate facial recognition technology. In a report released in November 2021, Beraja and his coauthors made the case that autocracies can foster innovation in the development of face recognition AI due to the close alignment between the technology and governmental objectives.
Face recognition technology can be used for a lot more good than bad, thus it may be impossible to stop the proliferation of these undesirable applications.
An economist at Harvard University and one of Beraja’s coauthors, David Yang, claims that recent US efforts to constrain Chinese technology have focused more on thwarting the creation of new capabilities than on restricting the transfer of current ones. He claims that China has already created a complete suite of surveillance AI technology that it can market. “The recent limitations make no difference to that.”
According to Seymour of the Center for New American Security, other AI-related fields that are still in their infancy may end up evolving into potent new surveillance technologies whose spread needs to be closely watched.