Yesterday’s futuristic vision is today’s reality
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.