How did China become the world leader in this kind of technology? Some of the newest surveillance systems trace their origin to 2017, when one of China’s best-known entrepreneurs laid out a bold vision for the future: a computer system that could predict crimes.
The entrepreneur, Yin Qi, who founded Megvii, an artificial intelligence start-up, told Chinese state media that his technology could give police a search engine for crime, analyzing huge amounts of video footage to intuit patterns and warn authorities about suspicious behavior. He explained that if cameras detected a person spending too much time at a train station, for example, the system could flag a possible pickpocket.
“It would be scary if there were actually people watching behind the camera, but behind it is a system,” Yin said at the time. “It’s like the search engine we use every day to surf the internet—it’s very neutral. It’s supposed to be a benevolent thing.”
He added that with such monitoring, “the bad guys have nowhere to hide.”
His vision is slowly becoming a reality. Megvii presentations show how the company’s products assemble full digital dossiers for police:
“Build a multidimensional database that stores faces, photos, cars, cases, and incident records,” reads a description of one product, called “intelligent search.” The software analyzes the data to “dig out ordinary people who seem innocent” to “stifle illegal acts in the cradle.”
A Megvii spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the company is committed to the responsible development of artificial intelligence and that it’s concerned about making life safer and more convenient, “not about monitoring any particular group or individual.”