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SenseTime: how the world’s most valuable AI startup is changing China

Chinese unicorn SenseTime claims its facial recognition technology can recognise one face out of 100 million faces, but you may not even recognise the world’s most highly valued AI startup yourself.

The Hong Kong-registered artificial intelligence (AI) company in April raised over $600 million with the help of backer Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. SenseTime was founded in October 2014 by Professor Xiaoou Tang, chair of the Department of Information Engineering at Hong Kong’s Chinese University, along with a dozen researchers and engineers, SenseTime’s chief marketing officer (CMO) June Jin tells NS Tech.

SenseTime originated as an academic project, but became a business in 2015 with the appointment of Xu Li, the company’s CEO. After spending its first year as a company focusing on research and development, SenseTime began launching products in 2016 and now says it has over 700 customers in China and overseas.

The company has a vast range of products focused largely on providing security and convenience. SenseTime hopes the Shanghai Metro, the world’s largest by route length, could use its facial recognition technology to do away with the need for tickets and travel cards; cameras could simply scan customers’ faces and automatically take payment from their accounts.

Other products are designed to make you better looking. One of SenseTime’s customers is Meitu, a Chinese selfie app largely unknown in the West but hugely popular in China, which went public in Hong Kong in December 2016. SenseTime’s technology allows users to modify their appearances and take funny or more attractive-looking selfies.

“We can put all kinds of special effects on you: we can make the eyes bigger and the nose longer. You can put little bunny ears,” SenseTime’s managing director Esther Wong said at a 27 August talk at a bar in Hong Kong’s SoHo district.

SenseTime’s technology can even do this for livestreamed video: in August, the company launched a filter for smartphone cameras and livestreaming apps that automatically touches up your body while you livestream.

A recent South China Morning Post report documents the level of beauty demanded of a female Chinese live-streaming star and the stress that goes with living up to those standards. 26-year-old livestreaming star Fan Fan told the newspaper about feeling old and burnt out working more than 10 hours a day seven days a week.

“You can make certain parts bigger and certain parts skinnier,” says Wong, describing SenseTime’s livestreaming technology for body modification.

“They always joke that whenever a girl is livestreaming, you don’t know what she really looks like because you can look completely different on the livestream.”

Crime prevention

SenseTime’s technology extends to ride-hailing apps, too. Didi Chuxing, which merged with Uber China in 2016, was dealt a major blow when the government suspended its operations on 11 September after a 20-year-old woman was raped and murdered by one of its drivers.

Wong noted the murder in her talk and said SenseTime’s technology could improve safety for users of ride-hailing apps, not only against violent drivers but fatigued ones too.

“We also do surveillance in a vehicle. You can sense motions and tell if the driver is calm or nervous and you can also track…if the driver is actually putting his attention to the road,” she said.

“You can set the alert that if there is a certain period of time – let’s say three, five seconds – the driver is not looking at the road it will send an alert. That, actually, will save a lot of lives. In China, unlike in the US, they don’t have a maximum [number of] hours of driving limits. The driver can drive as long as they want, and unfortunately a lot of times they are quite tired.”

SenseTime’s CMO Jin, responding to a request for comment from NS Tech, says: “We provide the technology (called DMS – Driver Monitoring System) to car makers. When the system detects a driver driving with fatigue, it sends off an alert, urging the driver to pull off from the road and perhaps take a rest to avoid potential danger.”

But for all the discussion of improving safety – including for women – one attendee at the talk was not impressed and walked out half-way in disgust.

“I found it upsetting, frustrating and terrifying that one of the world’s leading technology companies that specialises in AI was involved in creating and developing sexist technology that objectifies and sexualises women,” 29-year-old Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, a Hong Kong-based fashion journalist who is also a PhD student at the London College of Fashion, tells NSTech, referring to SenseTime’s livestream body modification technology.

“The AI tech creates impossible beauty standards which women feel they must live up to. Instead of addressing how their technology contributes to notions of objectifying women, instead the company appeared to be more concerned about how to capitalise on women’s fears by instead introducing video technology into cars to track drivers’ eye movements. For me, it felt like they contributed to a problem and then they also make money off the results of it.”

Franky Chan, public relations manager for SenseTime, says: “SenseTime respects all kinds of value and does not define to ‘beauty’. The demo concerned is only a demonstration of our real-time posture recognition capability. We try to show how our algorithm can alter the body shape (either thin or fat) through an interesting video. In fact, we provide this technology to online entertainment apps and websites to create fun and entertaining user experience.”

Government (mis)use?

China generally has a low crime rate, but is occasionally hit by sporadic acts of violence. At least 11 people were killed on 12 September when a driver deliberately crashed a car into a busy pedestrian zone in the city of Hengyang in Hunan province.

The Chinese Communist Party is also concerned about suppressing anti-government activity, especially now in Xinjiang, a province more than six times the size of the UK where the government has established a sophisticated network of detention centres aimed at controlling the Muslim majority, according to various media reports.

An expert in Chinese privacy law from The University of Hong Kong (HKU), who asked not to be named because he is conducting sensitive research in mainland China, says Chinese law does not offer comprehensive protection of personal information.

“It’s actually a patchwork system, which means it is always sector-specific and regulates certain information, like financial or health information,” he says.

He adds that for private entities, there is a “general recognition of both a right to privacy on personal information”.

“In this regard, SenseTime theoretically has to obey provisions on privacy and personal information. The problem amounts to what ‘personal information’ and ‘right to privacy’ is. If a certain private company collects and uses personal information concerning a given individual, then in theory it should seek consent from that so-called ‘data subject’, but the situation is quite complicated.”

SenseTime co-founder Xiaogang Wang told Nikkei Asian Review in a September interview that SenseTime is “not a surveillance company”. In an April Quartz interview, he has also pointed to the positive uses of facial recognition technology in locating lost children.

Wong, speaking at the Hong Kong talk, says SenseTime’s cameras can improve traffic safety and traffic management by tracking car number plates and automatically recognising traffic incidents when they happen, alerting police.

“You will know there are some incidents happening when there is a cluster of people that does not move a lot. Usually, that means a car crash or something has happened,” Wong said, showing the audience an image of a busy intersection.

The camera’s administrator can set up alerts based on these factors and authorities can be automatically alerted to any issues.

She also says the technology is able to recognise one human face out of one hundred million faces.

“Governments all over the world increasingly use technologies like ‘facial recognition’ in public spaces, often without asking the public if they consent to being monitored, and without explaining to the public how much they know about them through the massive amounts of data they can now routinely gather about them,” says Frederike Kaltheuner, data programme lead at Privacy International.

“This is a problem all over the world…however, it is especially worrying in contexts where human rights and the rule of law are not respected, because the potential for abuse, and oppressing – for example – political dissidents is even higher than in democratic countries.”

On questions of privacy and how SenseTime’s technology could be misused by the Chinese government in violation of the rights of its citizens, Wong argued that the US also has a high-level of surveillance.

“In the US, there are two cameras per person. But in China, because there are so many people, so as a result you feel there is a lot of surveillance on people,” she said, responding to an audience question.

“Proper surveillance is needed for national security. You don’t want another 9/11 happening. You want to avoid terrorism. You want to protect the homeland. So these are all very important things the government could and should spend in terms of where they spend the money – the same in China as well.”

But it is not necessarily accurate to draw like-for-like comparisons between China and jurisdictions like the United States or the EU, which have more rigorous privacy laws.

“Unfortunately, in China there is no statutory right to privacy or private information, unlike the situation in the EU where the data protection applies to both public and private sectors,” the HKU expert says.

“In theory, as long as the government thinks the collection or use of private information serves the exercise of its power, it is giving a green light to do so.”

Privacy International’s Kaltheuner adds: “Law enforcement and intelligence agencies should have the capacity to effectively prevent and investigate serious crimes and terrorism. This, however, should not give them unfettered powers to monitor people at a population level, because it gives governments – especially authoritarian governments – too much information, power and control over our lives.”

SenseTime’s Chan says: “SenseTime mainly provides customers with algorithms and technology to process their data. We do not obtain, and have no control of, the data from customers. By nature, AI is only a tool, it depends on whether the user uses it for good or bad causes.”

SenseTime’s CMO Jin adds: “Our technologies have been deployed in cases where criminals were captured and missing elderlies were found. Our goal is to help keep cities and communities safe.

“As an industry in general, indeed we need to strike a balance between efficiency and privacy. That’s something perhaps the policy makers and industries shall work together and figure out a solution.”

James Delaire is a pseudonym used at the author’s request