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Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner (1982)

China is reportedly testing AI emotion detection software on Uyghurs

There is currently scientific disagreement about whether artificial intelligence can even read human emotions

In new reports that are incredibly dystopian, a software engineer has alleged that the Chinese government is using facial recognition AI to monitor the emotions of its Uyghur community.

The engineer spoke to the BBC for a Panorama episode titled ‘Are You Scared Yet, Human?’ on condition of anonymity. ”The Chinese government use Uyghurs as test subjects for various experiments just like rats are used in laboratories,” he said.

He explained being tasked with installing surveillance in police stations in the Xinjiang province: ”We placed the emotion detection camera three metres from the subject. It is similar to a lie detector but far more advanced technology.”

The AI software, he said, makes pie charts to display the results, and in a real-life example of this, the majority of individuals overwhelmingly displayed a ‘red zone’, meaning they were scared or had an anxious disposition. Scientists disagree about whether AI can accurately identify human emotions, and according to recent studies, AI has been misreading human emotions, so this doesn’t exactly bode well.

China director of Human Rights Watch Sophie Richardson called the evidence “shocking”. She continued: “It’s not just that people are being reduced to a pie chart, it’s people who are in highly coercive circumstances, under enormous pressure, being understandably nervous and that's taken as an indication of guilt, and I think that’s deeply problematic." 

According to Darren Byler from the University of Colorado, ”Uyghur life is now about generating data”. He says they routinely have to provide DNA samples to local officials, undergo digital scans and most have to download a government phone app, which gathers data including their contact lists and texts.

”Everyone knows that the smartphone is something you have to carry with you, and if you don't carry it you can be detained, they know that you're being tracked by it. And they feel like there's no escape,” he added.

Xinjiang is home to 12 million ethnic minority Uyghurs, most of whom are Muslim. The area contains the widely condemned ‘re-education centres’ which have been labelled modern-day concentration camps, where, at an estimate, over a million are currently held. A recent survivor of one of these high security camps revealed witnessing rapes, beatings, and torture.

Some of those who have spoken out about the country’s alleged human rights abuses have been silenced: a teen TikTok user was blocked by the platform in 2019 after openly criticising the Chinese government, before being reinstated.

The Chinese embassy in London did not respond directly to the BBC’s claims but said that political and social rights in all ethnic groups were guaranteed.