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Smart robots are watching you

Smartrobotsarewatching you

A first batch of ten intelligent robots have started to work as customs officers at three ports in the cities of Zhuhai and Zhongshan in Southern China's Guangdong province.

The robots, named Xiao Hai, have state-of-the-art perception technology and are able to listen, speak, learn, see and walk. Based on a specialized customs database, the robots can answer questions in 28 languages and dialects, including Chinese, English and Japanese. With face recognition technology, the robots can detect suspicious people and raise an alarm, according to Zhao Min, director of Gongbei customs office.

Governor of New York State Andrew Cuomo recently declared that facial recognition technology will soon be tested around Manhattan. "At each crossing, and at structurally sensitive points on bridges and tunnels, advanced cameras and sensors will be installed to read license plates and test emerging facial recognition software and equipment," he said in a speech. "We're going to be using this in Penn-Farley and we also want to be testing it in bridges and crossings system." 

At the same time, a new report calls for greater oversight in the use of emerging facial recognition software that contains the images of more than 117 million Americans, almost half the grownups in the United States. Because African-Americans disproportionately come into contact with, and are arrested by, law enforcement officials, their police photos will most likely be overrepresented in facial recognition databases.

According to the study, conducted by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School, "Face recognition can and should be used to respond to serious crimes and public emergencies, but it should not be used to scan the face of any person, at any time, for any crime." The report also warned that “There is a real risk that police face recognition will be used to stifle free speech.” For instance, researchers found that just one agency — the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation — specifically prohibited using the software to track people engaging in political or religious speech.

It's not hard to imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how “trustworthy” you are. The “social credit” plan published by the Chinese government last year already has the aim of doing just that by as early as 2020. The ambition is to collect every scrap of information available online about China's companies and citizens in a single place – and then assign each of them a score based on their political, commercial, social and legal “credit.” It's what China in Orwellian fashion calls “Internet Plus,” but privacy advocates call a 21st-century police state.

A huge part of Chinese political theatre is to claim that there is an idealised future, a Leninist Utopia to head towards. But critics fear that assigning all of China's people a social credit rating that weighs up and scores every aspect of their behaviour is actually designed for mass surveillance. It would not only be a gigantic technological challenge but also thoroughly subjective – and could be extremely unpopular. As one resident put it on social media: “This is society turned upside down. It's citizens who should be grading government officials, and not the other way around”.

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Alexander Kabakov, a Russian computer expert who devised a system called FindFace which lets users take a photo of someone and then work out their identity with 70% accuracy, may well be right when he says that: “In today’s world we are surrounded by gadgets. Our phones, televisions, fridges, everything around us is sending real-time information about us. Already we have full data on people’s movements, their interests and so on. A person should understand that in the modern world he is under the spotlight of technology. You just have to live with that.”