Analysis. The power of Chinese surveillance apps has been presented by the Chinese government and by the companies operating them as an excellent service to have in an emergency situation.

China’s first health emergency in the artificial intelligence era

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the main concern that many Chinese people have is the need to know whether they were in contact with or in proximity to someone infected with the virus in the days before the outbreak.

In today’s China, it has become very easy to find out this information: Chinese telephone companies and some apps (e.g. those of the state railways) have set up systems through which people can check whether, during their travels by train or by plane, they were ever close to or in contact with someone who ended up infected or hospitalized with the disease.

China Mobile has informed the inhabitants of Beijing that they have the possibility, introduced some days ago, to track their movements over the last 30 days with a specially provided service. From our perspective, this development might appear shocking, something that tramples over people’s privacy—both one’s own and that of one’s fellow passengers on trains and planes, unaware of the checks being performed on their state of health—however, in China, this has been received mostly as a positive development, according to the feedback given by the users of these services, as it gave people reassurance.

The power of Chinese apps, dedicated to the strict control of citizens’ movements and often accused of being nothing more than a security apparatus, as well as the starting point for future hyper-surveilled and “secure” smart cities, has been presented by the Chinese government and by the companies operating them as an excellent service to have in an emergency situation.

As Reuters wrote, the coronavirus brought the Chinese surveillance system “out of the shadows.” It would be more appropriate, however, to say that the virus has allowed the ad hoc use of tools that the Chinese are already accustomed to use, or be “subjected” to, on an everyday basis. We are facing the first health emergency in the age of artificial intelligence, and, although it remains a dramatic and complicated situation, China is once again pointing out a possible way forward. For instance, Reuters reports on another use of artificial intelligence in today’s China, one of many possible examples: a man from Hangzhou—a city in the south of the country—who had returned home was put on notice by the police, who told him it would be better if he remained at home.

The reason was that he had just returned from Wenzhou, a place considered to be highly contaminated. His car’s license plate had been recorded by video cameras, and then, once he returned home, the Hangzhou police put him on high alert: because of where he had just returned from, he was supposed to stay at home, monitor his fever and contact the city’s health authorities in case of symptoms. At a certain point, however, he got bored and decided to leave his house: “This time, not only did the police contact him, so did his boss. He had been spotted near Hangzhou’s West Lake by a camera with facial recognition technology, and the authorities had alerted his company as a warning,” because he was not following the instructions he had been given.

In coronavirus-stricken China, there are new possibilities for technology companies: although they’d never admit it outright, they are benefiting from a unique opportunity to increase their supply of the resource that serves as the main fuel their inventions: more data—indeed, a lot more.

Cowed by the pervasive fear and concern, the already-weak resistance to the invasion of one’s privacy has been definitively overcome: the Megvii facial recognition company, for instance, announced that they have developed a new way of detecting and identifying people with fever, thanks to the support of the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Science.

Its new “AI temperature measurement system” uses body and face data to identify people, and it is already being tested in a district in Beijing. This is just one example—even Baidu, the main Chinese search engine, announced that its Artificial Intelligence Lab has developed a similar device—which allows us to analyze the features of this phenomenon, which have been present for quite some time: private companies, supported by the Chinese state, are developing new “intrusive” products (but also useful, one must admit, at least in this particular case). The companies can then sell their creations abroad, after perfecting them thanks to the possibility of accessing all the data; at the same time, the state keeps a firm hand on all movements of technology and data, in order to ensure that everything proceeds according to its directives.

And there’s even more important news on the facial recognition front: SenseTime, another flagship of the Chinese system, claims they are now able to identify people wearing face masks as well.

This is an important aspect, especially at the moment: in China nowadays, in order to accomplish many everyday tasks (payments, appointments, doing business at a bank or going to public offices), you won’t just need your smartphone, but also, most importantly, your face. The problem is that now, with the mass use of face masks, the technology has shown signs of imperfection (which have been pointed out with a great deal of irony on Chinese social media, for instance by people who, because of their habit of wearing a face mask, did not pass the facial recognition test to be allowed into their own homes).

The Zhejiang Dahua surveillance camera company recently claimed that it could detect fever with infrared cameras with an accuracy of 0.3 degrees. This technology is specifically meant for use in crowded places, such as on a train. In an interview published in Xinhua, Zhu Jiansheng from the Chinese Academy of Sciences explained how technology can help authorities find people on a particular train who might have been exposed to a confirmed or suspected coronavirus case: “We analyze data of those who were seated three rows in front of or behind known or suspected patients so that the epidemic control authorities can make informed moves.”

There are other applications of Chinese AI currently being developed: the one which has become most famous in our part of the world concerns the use of drones to warn people to wear face masks (there is a video circulating online of an old lady visited by a drone in inner Mongolia).

Then, there are the robots inside hospitals that are taking care of activities that would put people at risk, such as pest control, meal delivery or cleaning in hospital areas being used to house patients exposed to or infected with coronavirus. Finally, there are the voice assistants: with the use of AI, they are being used to ask people for information at home, store data and suggest immediate treatment or hospitalization.

In just five minutes, Chinese voice assistants are able to make 200 calls, significantly relieving the workload of hospital workers. As the Yesky Mandarin portal pointed out, “this robotic call service can help doctors on the front lines control the situation. With technologies such as speech recognition, semantic comprehension and human-machine dialogue, robots are able to accurately understand human language, obtain basic information and give answers.”

There’s no shortage of news on the medical research front as well. In this regard, the website of the Cyberspace Administration of China, in an article entitled “Artificial intelligence and big data assist the research and development of new drugs against the coronavirus,” announced the launch of a plan for the “research and development of drugs thanks to artificial intelligence and big data sharing platforms,” as well as every type of research and bibliographic materials on the coronavirus. On this issue, however, despite the encouraging announcements, the scientific community is almost unanimous in emphasizing that a cure, not to mention a vaccine, is not just around the corner.

Finally, there is the boost given to virtual conferences and e-learning, a sector in which China has been investing for a long time, and which has recently seen renewed attention and more experimentation due to the closure of schools and offices. For schools, they have begun using software that had been available for some time, which allows several students to be connected at the same time, providing the teacher with all the data they need, including data recorded by cameras which shows the level of attention of each student during the lesson.

However, all of this is already a reality in China, regardless of the current emergency situation.

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