Facial Recognition in China

Facial recognition, hotly debated in the West, is already ubiquitous in China, with many very useful day-to-day applications. You can use just your face to…

  • …pay with Alipay’s Smile-to-Pay,

  • …get access to your room at the Flyzoo Hotel - no keys needed,

  • …board planes, trains and subways,

  • …or get directions at an airport, just by looking at a display.

Demonstration of a China Airport face-recognition system to help you check your flight status and find the way to your gate. Note I did not input anything, or even speak to it. It accurately identified my full flight information simply from my face. Most likely using the picture taken when passing through the security check.

Of course all this is a double-edged sword. It made huge waves in the media around the world when China showcased how its education system started using facial recognition and AI in classrooms. But the outrage was not limited to an overseas audience! Also in China parents and progressive teachers began immediately questioning the approach and called it “the jailification (in Chinese: 监狱化) of the classroom”. If you want to give Google Translate a try, check out this article on Baiduto get some insights into how Chinese feel about this.

When San Francisco started banning the use of facial recognition in public, this piece of news got hotly debated on China’s Toutiao app where some articles had many thousands of comments which really went to show that Chinese do care deeply about the topic - contrary to some of the Western media depictions. One funny commentator from Beijing cynically remarked: “no wonder that so many people in Beijing are wearing masks every day - it’s not just the pollution! 😉”

recent article on Abacus gives a good overview of how Chinese people reacted to some news lately that Alipay reportedly abused facial recognition on its popular payment app. This case shows that Chinese people often accept certain behaviour from government institutions but not from private companies. While being suspicious of too much government surveillance, they do seem to appreciate the positive effects of it: e.g. Facial recognition being used to find missing children.

Applying facial simulation algorithms can deliver astonishingly accurate renderings of children faces even five, ten or fifteen years after they have been abducted or went otherwise missing. Last month in Sichuan province, police used facial recognition technology to reunite 13-year-old Gui Hao with his family. The AI was able to use a photo taken when Gui was 3 years old to simulate his current face based on various biological characteristics.

By the way, the imaging technology was developed by Tencent which lately has announced its new company mission statement: 科技向善(“Tech for Social Good”).

Key Takeaways:

Against a perception often portrayed by Western media, that Chinese people do not care about the consequences of pervasive public cameras with enabled facial recognition capabilities, there is mounting evidence that they also do know that facial recognition and AI might have dangerous side aspects too. People in the west might call them naive, but they tend to look more on the bright side and the many advantages this new technology might bring to their everyday lives.