A Company That's Helping Build China's Panopticon Won't Stop There
Bloomberg Businessweek Middle East|December 16, 2018

SenseTime, the world’s most valuable AI startup, aims to bring its smarter-cameras everywhere model, well, everywhere

The lobby of SenseTime’s Beijing office makes you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into a Philip K. Dick novel. A panel near the entrance acts as a digital mirror, its built-in camera analyzing your face to estimate your age and assign an “attractiveness rating” (you score higher when you smile). Another screen shows an app that morphs your face like a Snapchat filter, except that instead of adding rainbow vomit, it slims the figure, widens eyes, and whitens skin.

A third screen displays a feed from a camera aimed at a distant intersection, with every person and object instantly identified and overlaid with a color-coded box. Humans are orange; cars are blue. The longer the system watches, the more bullet points appear beside the boxes: “Adult. Shortsleeve top. Trousers. Male. Black top. Gray bottom,” one set of points reads. “Volkswagen Passat. Black,” reads another. Motion lines trailing each figure indicate their direction and speed.

SenseTime sells artificial intelligence software that recognizes things, especially people. The four-year-old company’s image-identifying algorithms have made it the world’s most valuable AI startup (more than $4.5 billion) and an early leader in China, where it’s won contracts with the top phone makers, the largest telecommunications company, and the biggest retailer. Various Chinese police departments use its SenseTotem and SenseFace systems to analyze security footage and bust suspects. The company’s success is a marker for China’s race to build digital panopticons to keep watch over its 1.4 billion residents, with direct government support and fewer of the privacy concerns that tend to drive the debate around this kind of next-level surveillance.

The company will have to wrestle more seriously with ethical questions as it expands into new industries and countries. These include Japan, where it’s making road-tracking software to help steer driverless Hondas, and the U.S., where its New Jersey health lab is developing cancer detection software. It’s also working to bring interactive games to live streamers in Southeast Asia, teaming up with the popular app Bigo.

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