At the beginning of last year, the Bangladesh government has begun evaluating the bid of an unnamed Chinese company to build a smart city in the Bay of Bengal with infrastructure powered by artificial intelligence. The construction of the high-tech city has not yet begun, but if it goes ahead it could include facial recognition software that can use public cameras to identify missing people or track down criminals in the crowd – already in place in many Chinese cities.
This work is one of the factors that make China the world leader in deploying facial recognition, according to a study by experts at Harvard and MIT published last week by the Brookings Institution, a well-known think tank.
The report finds that Chinese companies lead the world in facial recognition exports, accounting for 201 technology export contracts, followed by US companies with 128 contracts. China also has the lead in AI in most cases, with 250 of the 1,636 export contracts involving some type. of AI to 136 exporting countries. The second largest seller was the US, with 215 AI units.
The report says that the export could lead to increased surveillance by other governments, which could harm citizens’ rights. “The fact that China is exporting to these countries can make them more independent, while they can be more democratic,” said Martin Beraja, an MIT economist who participated in the study and whose work focuses on the relationship between innovation. technologies such as AI, government policies, and macroeconomics.
Facial recognition technology has many uses, including unlocking mobile phones, providing authentication in apps, and finding friends on social networking sites. The MIT-Harvard researchers focused on so-called smart city technology, where facial recognition is often deployed to help manage video surveillance. The study used data from international research projects from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and data extracted from Chinese AI companies.
In recent years US lawmakers and presidents have expressed concern that China is outpacing the US in AI technology. The report appears to provide strong evidence of one area where change has already taken place.
“This supports why we need to put parameters on this kind of technology,” says Alexandra Seymour, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who studies the implications of AI.
There is a lot of bipartisan interest in the US in restricting Chinese technology around the world. Under the leadership of President Trump, the US government imposed regulations to ban the use of Huawei’s 5G technology in the US and elsewhere and targeted Chinese AI companies with a chip embargo. The Biden administration has imposed a strict blockade that prevents Chinese companies from acquiring microchips or semiconductor manufacturing technology, and has imposed sanctions on Chinese facial recognition systems used to track Uyghur Muslims.
Efforts to limit facial recognition exports from China could also amount to sanctions on countries that export the technology, Seymour said. But he adds that the US should also set an example to the rest of the world when it comes to regulating the use of facial recognition.
The fact that the US is the world’s second largest exporter of facial recognition technology reinforces the idea – promoted by the US government – that American technology is inherently free and democratic.