Expanding databases

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For all the promise it holds for the future, artificial intelligence is still guilty of historic bias. Voice recognition software struggles with English accents that are not American or British and facial recognition can be guilty of racial profiling.

As this technology increasingly outpaces human discourse on race, China seems to be getting ahead on recognising a diverse range of faces across the wider world, despite its own struggles with racial insensitivity.

Facial recognition in particular has trouble differentiating faces that are not white, according to a study by MIT’s Media Lab.

While tech companies grapple with how to teach machines about race, their Chinese competitors are turning to Africa to speed up their algorithms’ diversity training.

In March, the Zimbabwean government signed a strategic partnership with the Gunagzhou-based startup CloudWalk Technology to begin a large-scale facial recognition program throughout the country.

The agreement, backed by the Chinese government’s Belt and Road initiative, will see the technology primarily used in security and law enforcement and will likely be expanded to other public programs.

“I watched with envy as Chinese people were able to pay for meals with their lovely faces,” said Shingi Magada, a Zimbabwean consultant on the partnership, told Global Times. “So I can’t wait until this comes to the beautiful people of Zimbabwe.”

Zimbabwe may be giving away valuable data as Chinese AI technologists stand to benefit from access to a database of millions of Zimbabwean faces Harare will share with CloudWalk.

CloudWalk has already recalibrated its existing technology through three-dimensional light technology in order to recognise darker skin tones.

In order to recognise other characteristics that may differ from China’s population, CloudWalk is also developing a system that recognises different hairstyles and body shapes.

China is focused on becoming the world leader in artificial intelligence, using facial recognition for everything from catching criminals to buying at KFC.

With the largest surveillance system already in place, China is also building one of the world’s most comprehensive facial recognition databases.

Rolling out the technology in a majority black population will allow CloudWalk to more clearly identify other ethnicities, getting ahead of US and European developers.

While African facial-recognition start-ups are in operation, they can’t compete with the scale and backing that CloudWalk and others enjoy.

The public-private partnership between the Zimbabwean government and CloudWalk is not the only database China’s AI engineers will have access to. Last year, the little-known Transsion became the dominant player in Africa’s mobile market, overtaking Samsung.

Despite the promised progress, these rollouts of facial recognition are also happening without the ethical and legal questions raised in developed markets.

In exchange for affordable smartphones or innovations that would speed up bureaucratic processes, it seems African customers are giving up personal data that is yet to be given a monetary value.

It could very well be the latest example of Africa handing over natural resources to China for skewed compensation. ((Quartz)

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