September 14, 2019 - 6:00am

“The smiling face you see on a monkey in a circus is not a smile of joy, it’s a grimace of fear,” one user wrote, “Can you manage to focus in class when you know there’s someone standing behind the classroom? Let alone knowing there’s a camera.”

This week’s long read pick is Camera Above The Classroom, a sobering piece from The Disconnect in which Yujie Xue (薛钰) explores the experimental deployment of facial recognition and AI in Chinese schools.

So-called “intelligent education” tools are currently being trialled across a number of schools. Billed as a way for classrooms to notice and care for more than the outliers at the top and bottom end of the achievement range, the platforms have been popular with parents and school administrators but considerably less so with students.

They actively hate it, in fact. And no wonder. They are in a continually monitored and scored environment with nowhere to hide. The students don’t even dare yawn in class for fear of being penalised. It makes for a stressful experience.

“Nobody leaves the classroom during the class break,” one pupil says. “We all collapse on the desks, sleeping.”

The author looks outside the schools, too, at how China is leveraging its surveillance technology to enter the global AI and big data arms race. The implications of this extend well beyond “smart uniforms” and brain monitors. There are issues of privacy, consent and also the potential human costs of excessive faith put in facial recognition.

In our networked world, no innovation is landlocked. We assume the West to be free and relatively anti-authoritarian, resistant to Chinese-style AI invasions of privacy. But with the recent rollout of a partnership between UK police and Ring, Amazon’s camera-enabled and networked doorbell product, it may be time to question that assumption.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.