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A student uses facial recognition to enter Peking University. Photo: Simon Song

Artificial intelligence is watching China’s students but how well can it really see?

  • The country’s schools and universities have been keen adopters of AI, applying the technology in classrooms and dormitories

Almost every second of Betty Li’s school life is monitored.

The 22-year-old student at a university in northwestern China must get through face scanners to enter her dormitory and register attendance, while cameras above the blackboards in her classrooms keep an eye on the students’ attentiveness.

Like many other educational institutions across the country, the university in Xian, Shaanxi province, deployed AI-powered gates and facial recognition cameras several years ago as a part of the “smart campuses” campaign promoted by the Ministry of Education. Some schools are even exploring ways to use artificial intelligence to analyse the behaviour of teachers and students.

The universities are at the forefront of a national effort to lead the world in emerging technologies and move China’s economy up the value chain.

But the surveillance of students has raised privacy issues for educators and parents, as well as big questions over the effectiveness of the technology.

Chinese university says new classroom facial recognition system will improve attendance

After long exposure to the scanners at her Xian university, Li is used to the technology’s constant presence – and its obvious failures. The “smart” facial recognition system cannot recognise her if she wears different glasses and there are long queues to get through the door to her dormitory.

It was not quite what Beijing had in mind when it called on schools and universities to promote AI in education and school management and use big data technology to develop online education apps.

In a detailed plan published in 2018, the ministry suggested that schools explore a new teaching model based on AI, including using artificial intelligence to monitor the teaching process and analyse the performance of students and teachers.

Schools across China have enthusiastically adopted AI, particularly facial recognition technology. The systems are not only used to gain entry to and secure school facilities, they also record student attendance and handle enrolments.

Universities across the country have installed facial recognition systems in campus gates and in classrooms. Photo: Wweibo

The Hangzhou No 11 High School in the coastal province of Zhejiang uses the systems in various applications, from its canteens to manage distribution of school meals to its classrooms where it monitors whether students enjoy their classes.

According to a video posted on the platform Douyin last year, cameras in the school’s classrooms can pick up seven emotions in the students – neutral, happy, sad, disappointed, angry, scared and surprised.

In the southwestern province of Guizhou, Guanyu Technology supplies chip-equipped “smart uniforms” to track students’ locations, according to its website.

Beijing Normal University law professor Wu Shenkuo said young people were the key to the adoption of AI.

“In the future, the education system will be a major carrier of AI applications, because Generation Z – people who were born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s and have used the internet since they were young – have higher demands on personalised study, and AI can help to achieve that,” Wu said.

But the proliferation of these applications in schools has unnerved some parents worried about privacy and the security of their children’s personal data.

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Tian Guanghui, a 56-year-old parent in Beijing, is so concerned that he posted an open letter online on August 23, calling for more awareness of the effects of AI surveillance on children’s mental well-being.

“When we were young, we don’t want our parents to monitor us every day so if one person is being watched by an electronic eye every day, it must have big impact on his or her psychological health,” Tian said. The letter has so far attracted more than a hundred signatories.

“I think educating children is about teaching them to be polite and humane, and to nurture their curiosity about the world,” he said. “Why do we need to monitor them?”

Tsinghua University electronic engineering professor Wang Shengjin is also worried about privacy and data safety.

“Each students’ behaviour, hobbies and habits is private and it’s a question if we should collect this data,” he said.

The ministry has acknowledged growing concern among teachers, students and parents over use of AI applications in schools, releasing guidelines earlier this month tightening the range of students’ personal data that app developers can collect.

Lei Chaozi, the ministry’s director general for science and technology, told Shanghai-based online news outlet The Paper that the ministry had also appointed a specialist panel to look into data security and privacy concerns with facial recognition in campuses.

“We will restrict and regulate the adoption of AI in campuses. For now, we call on school authorities to use these technologies with extreme prudence,” Lei said.

“Anything involved students’ personal information should be handled with great care: do not collect [such data] if avoidable, and as little as possible if they must be gathered. This is especially so in the case of students’ personal biometric data.”

But just how useful is the data anyway?

Zeng Liaoyuan, associate professor of information and communication engineering at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, said very few universities in the country could really use AI to do any meaningful analysis.

“AI does pretty well in a narrow area, such as playing chess, but students are very complex, with different behaviours, psychology and study models, so for now AI is very weak on assisted learning,” Zeng said.

He added that for most schools, cameras inside of the classroom were a measure of checking attendance and monitoring the overall situation in class, rather than scanning faces.

Li, the student in Xian, said she was worried at first about what happened to the data but as time went on, it mattered less. “We lost privacy a long time ago. Now we are very transparent in society, aren’t we?”

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