In the United States and Europe, the debate in the artificial intelligence community has focused on the unconscious biases of those designing the technology. Recent tests showed facial recognition systems made by companies like I.B.M. and Amazon were less accurate at identifying the features of darker-skinned people.
China’s efforts raise starker issues. While facial recognition technology uses aspects like skin tone and face shapes to sort images in photos or videos, it must be told by humans to categorize people based on social definitions of race or ethnicity. Chinese police, with the help of the start-ups, have done that.
“It’s something that seems shocking coming from the U.S., where there is most likely racism built into our algorithmic decision making, but not in an overt way like this,” said Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There’s not a system designed to identify someone as African-American, for example.”
The Chinese A.I. companies behind the software include Yitu, Megvii, SenseTime, and CloudWalk, which are each valued at more than $1 billion. Another company, Hikvision, that sells cameras and software to process the images, offered a minority recognition function, but began phasing it out in 2018, according to one of the people.
The companies’ valuations soared in 2018 as China’s Ministry of Public Security, its top police agency, set aside billions of dollars under two government plans, called Skynet and Sharp Eyes, to computerize surveillance, policing and intelligence collection.
In a statement, a SenseTime spokeswoman said she checked with “relevant teams,” who were not aware its technology was being used to profile. Megvii said in a statement it was focused on “commercial not political solutions,” adding, “we are concerned about the well-being and safety of individual citizens, not about monitoring groups.” CloudWalk and Yitu did not respond to requests for comment.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Selling products with names like Fire Eye, Sky Eye and Dragonfly Eye, the start-ups promise to use A.I. to analyze footage from China’s surveillance cameras. The technology is not mature — in 2017 Yitu promoted a one-in-three success rate when the police responded to its alarms at a train station — and many of China’s cameras are not powerful enough for facial recognition software to work effectively.