Written by Fyonn Oh

What Happened?

China has sought for decades to restrict the practice of Islam and maintain an iron grip in Xinjiang, a region where many Uighur muslims call home. They are forced into detention camps by the Chinese police and spend their days in indoctrination programs. China has received international condemnation for its harsh crackdown on the ethnic Muslim community. Recently, the country has increased its scrutiny by incorporating facial recognition technology that tracks their targets’  movement. This technology looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearances and tracks their movement. China is now the first to employ next-generation technology for racial profiling, potentially becoming a harbinger of automated racism.

A new generation of start-up companies like Yitu, Megvii, SenseTime and CloudWalk, cater to Beijing’s authoritarian needs, setting the tone for emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. The Chinese government has allocated millions of dollars into computerising surveillance, under two government plans called “Skynet” and “Sharp Eyes”. This has caused the valuation of these companies to skyrocket to more than $1 billion. CloudWalk, one of the start-up companies, advertised that the technology could recognise “sensitive groups of people” like Uighurs and Tibetans. According to their website, “If originally one Uighur lives in a neighbourhood, and within 20 days six Uighurs appear,” the technology “immediately sends alarms” to law enforcement.

A Perilous Future Ahead

“Take the most risky application of this technology, and chances are good someone is going to try it,” said Clare Garvie, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. “If you make a technology that can classify people by an ethnicity, someone will use it to repress that ethnicity.”

Mr. Lee Kai-Fu, a tech investor, has argued that China has an advantage in developing A.I. because its leaders are less fussed by “legal intricacies” or “moral consensus”. “We are not passive spectators in the story of A.I. — we are the authors of it,” Mr. Lee wrote last year. “That means the values underpinning our visions of an A.I. future could well become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

George Orwell’s dystopian future has never felt so near.

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