This article first appeared on the South China Morning Post.
Back-to-school season in China’s universities has become another example of how facial recognition technology is now part of people’s daily lives, as much as social media, mobile payments, and online shopping already have.
A growing number of universities are now extending their use of facial recognition to the enrollment registration process, after its initial adoption in applications such as security and recording students’ attendance.
China’s elite Tsinghua University is among the first batch of large academic institutions that have implemented face scans to expedite the enrollment process this month, when the school welcomed more than 3,800 new undergraduate students at its campus in Beijing. The regular academic year in the country starts in September, though many institutions may hold orientations beforehand.
The university deployed an array of face-scanning machines at designated registration points, which has made enrollment “smarter and more convenient” for both students and the university staff involved in the process, according to the system’s provider, Zhejiang Uniview Technologies, in a social media post on Tuesday.
At the back-end of the university’s facial recognition platform, administrative staff can verify each student’s information and keep headcount, according to Uniview, which is the third-largest video surveillance systems supplier in China.
The Hangzhou-based company’s facial recognition technology also supports a fleet of unstaffed vehicles, deployed in different areas of Tsinghua University’s campus, to ensure security and manage the flow of students.
Zhejiang University and Xi’an Jiaotong University, two of China’s oldest institutions of higher education, have also adopted face scans for their student enrollment activities this month, according to recent reports from online news site CCIDNet and various local media.
“Artificial intelligence (AI) has now crept into every corner of study and life among a new generation of students,” said CCIDNet, which is under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
That would include face scan enrollment, a guided campus tour by robots, and the use of big data analysis software to help students choose their college major.
The use of facial recognition technology at Zhejiang University, which was founded in 1897, has also been extended to laboratory management and a range of smart classroom applications.
The enrollment process last week at Xi’an Jiaotong University, which was initially established in Shanghai in 1896, processed more than 4,600 undergraduate students using face-scanning machines. The school, based in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, also plans to apply facial recognition to check class attendance.
The wider adoption of facial recognition in universities shows not only how far the technology’s applications have progressed in China, but also the broad availability of hardware, software, and services to set up these systems from different domestic hi-tech suppliers.
China, which wants to become a world leader in AI, has encouraged the adoption of facial recognition across the country, from systems that name and shame minor offenders like jaywalkers to those used to spot suspected criminals in a crowd, as well as those used to verify the identities of passengers at airports.
Using sophisticated algorithms, Chinese technology companies and other major businesses have adopted facial recognition in the retail, travel and banking environments.
Many consumers in China provide their personal data, which include their image, to the major online services providers in exchange for convenience in using these firms’ products. The broad availability of data, in turn, has helped these providers improve their AI algorithms and levels of service.
Still, China’s rapid adoption of this frictionless identification technology has come at odds against resistance in many Western countries. The US cities of Oakland and San Francisco in California have banned local police and other agencies from using the technology because of the potential for abuse. In the UK, a legal challenge has been mounted against the use of the technology by the police because it constitutes an unlawful violation of privacy.
Such resistance has not slowed down the use of facial recognition in China. The number of public surveillance cameras in the world’s second-largest economy is forecast to reach one for every two people by 2020, given the country’s current rate of deployment, according to the latest estimate from UK-based pro-consumer website Comparitech.