The Most Valuable AI Startup in the World Right Now Specializes in Real-Time Surveillance

April 18, 2018 - 4 minutes read

Surveillance in China is an incredibly hot topic right now. It’s well known that the Chinese government is interested in using the latest advances in surveillance technology to track its citizens’ every move. And a new artificial intelligence (AI) startup is taking the reins in helping the world’s largest country do exactly that.

Called SenseTime, the startup is developing software dubbed “Viper” that parses data from thousands of live camera feeds. Viper will be used by police and government authorities to “track everything from vice and accidents to suspects on blacklists.”

Seeing Another Way to Manage Society

Justin Niu is a partner at IDG, which is an early investor in SenseTime. He says there is a big market for SenseTime in China: “SenseTime and its competitors can grow so fast compared to elsewhere in the world because video surveillance is a big deal in China, the government controls the budget and there’s a huge budget for it so they can manage society.”

Automated surveillance, which is surveillance powered by AI, is a hot technology for China and the other world superpowers right now. SenseTime alone recently received $600 million in a funding round. Alibaba led the funding, giving SenseTime a valuation of $4.5 billion, putting it at the top of the list of the world’s highest value AI startups.

Vying to Be the Absolute Authority in AI

China’s not hiding its intentions with the surveillance technology; it plans to continue AI development to reach its goal of being the foremost AI superpower by 2020. Image analysis, in particular, has a huge market and is one of the most lucrative AI technologies for commercial enterprises and government entities. SenseTime itself began turning a profit in 2017 and claims to have more than 400 clients and partners.

At the moment, SenseTime is selling its commercial software to smartphone manufacturers to offer improved camera apps and features, like “beautification” effects, AR filters, identity verification, and more.

On the government side, however, SenseTime’s providing Chinese authorities with facial recognition and tracking features. It claims to use its software to match surveillance footage from crime scenes to photos in criminal databases. So far, it’s found 2,000 matches, solving almost 100 cases.

An All-Seeing Eye for Every Country?

China’s already been harassing and punishing prominent journalists who speak out against the country’s increasing rule over its citizens. But couple the technology with AI, and we’re looking at a surveillance software that will only keep improving from its baseline. Although the country emphasizes that SenseTime’s technology “will not affect privacy because only authorized persons can access it,” the implementation of the technology and its far-reaching consequences opens the possibility for many troubling scenarios to play out.

It’s known that other governments are working with startups in their own countries to create this type of system as well. Many critics of China say they’re not surprised by this emphasis on surveillance at all. But it’s not too farfetched to imagine similar technology being developed for Los Angeles or London in the near future.

This makes fictional works like 1984 a very real possibility; implementing AI surveillance systems will definitely raise many ethical debates, and rightly so. Seeing the future becomes a little more unnerving when you realize that it’s staring back at you. Where do you stand on AI-powered surveillance? Let us know in the comments!

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