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.

A sector that's rapidly expanding, domotics - domus (home) plus robotics - are smart houses that manage temperature and lighting to minimize wasted electricity. For example, smart thermostats sense your presence and set the temperature according to your needs, saving 20% a year on heating bills. Watch this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series to learn how domotics save money and increase a home's value.

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Listen: In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer, Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert assesses the current state of the climate crisis and answers a simple question: how screwed are we? And as the climate continues to warm at a record pace, she unpacks some of the more extreme climate solutions that some increasingly desperate nations are starting to consider. Such measures may sound like stuff of science fiction (see: injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere or shooting millions of tiny orbital mirrors into outer space) as times become more desperate, their appeal is growing. Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

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Want to tackle climate change? If so you'll have to reach out to China, which is currently responsible for over a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing will certainly take your call, as climate is a huge priority for President Xi Jinping.

Xi has promised that China will go "net zero" — meaning its carbon emissions will be offset by equal amounts of either natural or tech-driven carbon capture — by 2060. Is a decade later than most of the top 10 polluting countries fast enough for the rest of the world? It is for the Chinese, who want to help but have their own ideas about how.

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When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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