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Here Comes the AI Backlash

Here Comes the AI Backlash

A disruptive new technology appears. People freak out. A political backlash ensues. It's a pattern that's shaped the evolution of technologies from the printing press, to radio, to gene-modified foods, to social media. Next up: facial recognition, which uses AI to teach computers to recognize human faces. The backlash has been accelerating in recent weeks:


In the US, Bernie Sanders last weekend became the first 2020 presidential candidate to call for an outright ban on facial recognition software in policing. A handful of US cities have already blocked its use.

In Europe, policymakers in Brussels are weighing regulations to curtail "indiscriminate use" of the technology by companies and governments, while a UK parliamentary committee last month called for a moratorium. Just yesterday, Sweden's data protection authority issued its first-ever fine against a school that used facial recognition to track student attendance.

Then there's Hong Kong, where many protesters have donned face masks to prevent the authorities from using their faces to ID them. Over the weekend, they went even further, using electric saws to topple government-erected "smart lampposts" amid fears they could be used to spy on crowds. The government said in June it doesn't use automated facial recognition in the territory's thousands of surveillance cameras. The people aren't taking any chances.

Like all good technology backlashes, this one pits the concerns of individuals against the prerogatives of companies and governments. For consumers, facial recognition promises a measure of convenience – using a scan of your face to unlock your phone, or to check whether your flight to Shanghai is on time. In a few years, you might be able to ditch your wallet and just pay with everything using your face. For companies, the technology promises big profits, both from selling it – just this week, a Chinese facial recognition startup called Megvii filed for an IPO that could value the business at up to $1 billion – and from using the information gleaned to sell people more stuff. And for governments, it can help foil crime and terrorism by making it easier to detect and track bad guys (or truants!).

But while all of that is true, facial recognition can also be used for more sinister purposes - just ask the Uighurs in Xinjiang in Western China, whose movements are routinely tracked by surveillance cameras using facial recognition as part of a broader political and security crackdown there. Even in less repressive circumstances, facial recognition can also create risks for innocent people who are misidentified. The question is: who gets access to your face and under what rules? And should there be spaces where this technology just isn't allowed?

The backlash will probably only be partly successful. A few countries may try to ban facial recognition completely. Others will ban certain government applications, while permitting commercial uses. This too will require regulation: why would you trust a private company with your face? Other countries will more enthusiastically embrace it as a way of exercising greater control over their populations or providing better security.

Dystopian chaser: If you're worried about facial recognition, you'll love "gait recognition," which can ID you based on how you walk, even if it can't see your face. Companies are also working on "emotion detection" AI that guesses how you're feeling – or whether you're lying – based on pupil dilation and other physical cues.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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