One of China’s largest facial recognition companies wants to provide a high-tech solution to a problem triggered by a tech bubble that’s bursting: scores of leftover shared bicycles littering the streets of China’s cities. SenseTime introduced an “intelligent patrol screen” last Friday that uses computer vision and an abundance of cameras to detect whether people park their bikes properly. But it’s about more than just bikes. It can detect if there’s garbage on the streets or whether a crowd is gathering and alert city managers. The new system currently covers an area in Shanghai along Jiangsu Road, which has been dotted with a whopping 630 cameras. The purpose, according to the company, is to save time – Shanghai is home to nearly 25 million people and has an urban grid-style management system that requires a lot of staff to survey.
The system is based on SenseFoundry, a computer vision analysis platform for city security management. Among the platform’s many functions are face and vehicle recognition. SenseTime plans to add even more features in the future. The watchful eye of the company’s AI will be able to detect water accumulation on the streets, street peddlers, illegal parking, and something called “disorderly drying,” which the company told us refers to people hanging their clothes out to dry in the wrong place.
To create the system, SenseTime had to solve some interesting technological obstacles. For a traditional computer vision algorithm, a dense group of bicycles may look confusing due to their different sizes and positions. The same is true of trash. It can show up as all kinds of shapes and sizes, unlike conventional targets of computer recognition like vehicles, human bodies, and faces. The new system is part of SenseTime’s push into “new infrastructure,” a term that includes smart city infrastructure, among other initiatives. The Chinese government announced massive investments in digital infrastructure over the next five years, inviting tech companies to participate in the program. Tech giant Tencent also recently announced its own investment of 500 billion yuan (US$70 billion) in digital infrastructure projects.
But while SenseTime’s intelligent patrol screen might be limited to Shanghai for now, its surveillance tech isn’t. SenseTime is one of the largest facial recognition companies in China, with SoftBank and Alibaba among its biggest backers. Last year, it was touted as the most valuable AI startup in the world, surpassing US$7.5 billion.
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The company’s rise has also invited scrutiny. Last October, as the US-China tech war was heating up, the company was added to a US blacklist that cut off its access to goods and services from American companies without approval. Along with 28 other organizations, SenseTime was accused by the US Department of Commerce of aiding human rights abuses against Uygurs and other minorities in China’s western Xinjiang province. In recent years, the Chinese government has ramped up mass surveillance in the region. At the time, SenseTime responded to the blacklisting by saying that it abides by all the relevant laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which it operates. It added that it has been developing an AI code of ethics to ensure its technology is used responsibly.