Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras

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A video showing facial recognition software in use at the headquarters of the artificial intelligence company Megvii in Beijing.CreditGilles Sabrie for The New York Times

ZHENGZHOU, China — In the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, a police officer wearing facial recognition glasses spotted a heroin smuggler at a train station.

In Qingdao, a city famous for its German colonial heritage, cameras powered by artificial intelligence helped the police snatch two dozen criminal suspects in the midst of a big annual beer festival.

In Wuhu, a fugitive murder suspect was identified by a camera as he bought food from a street vendor.

With millions of cameras and billions of lines of code, China is building a high-tech authoritarian future. Beijing is embracing technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to identify and track 1.4 billion people. It wants to assemble a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system, with crucial help from its thriving technology industry.

“In the past, it was all about instinct,” said Shan Jun, the deputy chief of the police at the railway station in Zhengzhou, where the heroin smuggler was caught. “If you missed something, you missed it.”

China is reversing the commonly held vision of technology as a great democratizer, bringing people more freedom and connecting them to the world. In China, it has brought control.

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