Yes­ter­day’s fu­tur­is­tic vi­sion is to­day’s real­ity

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Barry He Blade Run­ner the Fu­ture, The Ter­mi­na­tor The Ter­mi­na­tor, Back to The au­thor is a Lon­don-based colum­nist. Con­tact the writer at ed­i­tor@mail.chi­nadai­lyuk.com

Though still in its in­fancy, fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy has quickly been ap­plied to a range of sec­tors as China leads the way

What do high-oc­tane Hol­ly­wood sci-fi movies, such as and have in com­mon? All are clas­sics in the West that show­case fu­tur­is­tic tech­nolo­gies (though, un­like the oth­ers,

has a huge Chi­nese fol­low­ing that has re­sulted in Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger do­ing an­other tril­ogy of films funded by tech gi­ant Ten­cent).

A theme that links the films is the ap­pear­ance of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy as a fu­tur­is­tic vi­sion of pos­si­ble ca­pa­bil­i­ties of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. The films, which were all pro­duced around 30 years ago and cap­tured the imag­i­na­tions of au­di­ences dur­ing the 1980s, are now sci­ence fact, in­stead of sci­ence fiction, be­cause fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy has be­come a real­ity.

China’s foray into the tech­nol­ogy, as a world leader in cou­pling ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence with fa­cial recog­ni­tion, has come on in leaps and bounds. Ar­eas such as bio­met­ric ver­i­fi­ca­tion, con­sumer re­tail and se­cu­rity have all ex­pe­ri­enced an in­crease in in­no­va­tion, as in­vestors and vi­sion­ar­ies have looked to take Chi­nese so­ci­ety to the next level.

Take the ex­am­ple of Vivo, one of China’s largest smart­phone ven­dors. The com­pany re­cently claimed its 3D fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy is 10 times more pop­u­lar than Ap­ple’s in­fa­mous Face ID. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for 3D-en­hanced apps and the po­ten­tial to uti­lize fa­cial ges­tures are not cur­rently pos­si­ble in the main­stream smart­phone mar­ket.

China is not only at the cut­ting edge of de­vel­op­ing such new tech­nol­ogy, but its peo­ple are also at the fore­front of those ac­cept­ing the new tech­nol­ogy into their lives.

Huawei has long in­cor­po­rated fa­cial recog­ni­tion fea­tures in its smart­phones. The tech­nol­ogy is preva­lent on phones in all price ranges in China, in­clud­ing the $150 UMiDigi phone, which of­fers rudi­men­tary 2D bio­met­ric ver­i­fi­ca­tion for con­sumers on a bud­get.

In Western mar­kets, such new tech­nol­ogy tends to be preva­lent only at the lux­ury end of the mo­bile in­dus­try.

Fa­cial recog­ni­tion apps are part of a grow­ing trend in China, where re­search and de­vel­op­ment into AI is cou­pling with the wide­spread use of ex­ist­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy. Such sys­tems can be used as quick and ef­fi­cient pay­ment and ver­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tems, and are in­creas­ingly com­mon across the coun­try. The tech­nol­ogy is widely used in ho­tels in the Xis­han dis­trict of Kun­ming, thanks to ad­vances in com­puter and hand­held vi­sion tech­nol­ogy that has en­abled ho­tels, air­ports, banks and even pub­lic toi­lets to ver­ify iden­ti­ties based on face scans.

Faces scanned by cam­eras are not stored on com­put­ers by tech­ni­cal staff mem­bers re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing sys­tems. Pri­vate IDs are en­crypted and purely used for re­al­time im­age match­ing with bank­ing and pub­lic se­cu­rity data­bases. On­line pri­vacy reg­u­la­tions in­tro­duced in China in May (at the same time as the Euro­pean Union in­tro­duced its GDPR reg­u­la­tions pro­tect­ing on­line pri­vacy) fur­ther lessen the risk of con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion be­ing com­pro­mised.

In fact, the open­ness of Chi­nese to the tech­nol­ogy has en­sured that many sec­tors are now ben­e­fit­ing from it. Star­tups and large cor­po­ra­tions alike have been in­vest­ing heav­ily in re­search and de­vel­op­ment for cut­tingedge and con­tem­po­rary func­tions.

Sto­ries of univer­sity pro­fes­sors us­ing bio­met­ric face-scan­ning tech­nol­ogy to de­ter­mine whether stu­dents are bored in lec­tures started cir­cu­lat­ing in 2016, and the me­dia have been rife with tales of novel uses for the tech­nol­ogy. Some Bei­jing pub­lic toi­lets have even been fit­ted with fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy to help pre­vent the theft of toi­let pa­per.

A joint re­port last year by the United States com­pany Se­quoia Cap­i­tal and Chi­nese cap­i­tal com­pany ZhenFund said China holds 55 per­cent of the world’s 15,000 com­puter vi­sion and fa­cial recog­ni­tion patents world­wide. The US, mean­while, holds 17 per­cent of them, al­though this num­ber is grow­ing with fresh in­vest­ment into star­tups. Fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy in the West has suf­fered be­cause of pri­vacy con­cerns, and the tech­nol­ogy has not been widely ac­cepted in the main­stream there.

Al­though fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy is still in its in­fancy, China has al­ready used it in a va­ri­ety of mo­bile and com­puter ap­pli­ca­tions, as well as in­cor­po­rated it into sec­tors in­clud­ing health­care, fi­nance and se­cu­rity. It is es­ti­mated that the mar­ket for such prod­ucts will be worth 5.1 bil­lion yuan ($766 mil­lion; 658 mil­lion eu­ros; £582 mil­lion) in 2021 — al­most five times its value in 2016.

Fa­cial recog­ni­tion is be­ing seen as a key tech­nol­ogy, along­side AI and 5G, in pro­ject­ing China as a true 21st cen­tury tech­no­log­i­cal su­per­power. It is also part of the coun­try’s aim to in­spire nearly 10 tril­lion yuan worth of re­lated busi­ness and de­vel­op­ment projects around the world, en­sur­ing that the tech­nol­ogy’s var­i­ous in­dus­tries will be able to thrive for many years to come.

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