Canon put AI cameras in its Chinese offices that only let smiling workers inside

Tech company Canon has come up with a downright dystopic way to tackle the problem of workplace morale: it’s installed cameras with AI-enabled “smile recognition” technology in the offices of its Chinese subsidiary Canon Information Technology. The cameras only let smiling workers enter rooms or book meetings, ensuring that every employee is definitely, 100 percent happy all the time.

This depressing tale was highlighted in a report from The Financial Times on how Chinese companies are surveilling employees to an unsettling degree with the help of AI and algorithms. Firms are monitoring which programs employees use on their computers to gauge their productivity; using CCTV cameras to measure how long they take on their lunch break; and even tracking their movements outside the office using mobile apps.

As the King’s College London academic Nick Srnicek told the FT: “Workers are not being replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Instead, the management is being sort of augmented by these technologies […] Technologies are increasing the pace for people who work with machines instead of the other way around, just like what happened during the industrial revolution in the 18th century.”

Canon Information Technology actually announced its “smile recognition” cameras last year as part of a suite of workplace management tools, but the technology doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention. Indeed, the fact it passed under the radar is a good illustration of just how common surveillance tools like this are becoming — and not just in China.

Although readers in the West sometimes have a tendency to dismiss the sort of surveillance described by the FT as a foreign phenomena, countries like the US and UK are just as culpable. Amazon is perhaps the prime example of this dynamic: it’s known for squeezing every ounce of effort from its warehouse workers at the expense of their health, and even ranking their productivity using algorithms before firing those at the bottom of the scale.

Such modern-day Taylorism is not restricted to blue collar jobs, either: many modern software suites like Microsoft 365 come with built-in surveillance tools. And with more people working from home because of the pandemic, more companies are deploying these features for fear of losing control over their workers. (Or, for a slightly more cynical read: they’ve always wanted to use these tools and the pandemic provides a handy pretext.)

In other words: AI-enabled smile recognition cameras are in many ways the least dangerous types of surveillance technology. They have the benefit of being obvious. Other systems of control are much more subtle, and probably coming to an office near you sometime soon.