Researchers Voice Rights Concerns Over Emotion Recognition Technology

Emotion recognition technology is being marketed globally as the next frontier of facial recognition, with proponents claiming it particularly well-suited for two starkly different environments: schools and prisons. In the Chinese context, companies have explicitly attached themselves to nationwide surveillance schemes such as the Sharp Eyes program, which aims to conduct real-time surveillance of vast swaths of China using high-tech surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and algorithmic modeling. In January 2021, British human rights organization Article 19 published a research paper by Vidushi Marda and Shazeda Ahmed on emotion recognition technology in China and the threat its adoption poses to the freedoms of expression, privacy, and the right to protest. The report also highlighted the deleterious effects of using the technology in the classroom:

[…] At No. 11, which claims to have only tested the Hikvision Smart Classroom Behaviour Management System on two tenth-grade classes, some students were afraid when their teachers demonstrated the technology. While one student’s fear was grounded in her understanding of how powerful Hikvision’s high-resolution surveillance cameras are, others worried about being academically penalised if any of their movements were recorded as unfocused. “Ever since the ‘smart eyes’ have been installed in the classroom, I haven’t dared to be absent-minded in class,” reflected one student at Hangzhou No. 11. This narrative can fuel belief in the power of a technology that potentially exceeds what it is being used for; one student at Niulanshan First Secondary School in Beijing was anxious that data about the moments when he is inattentive in class could be shared with he wants to attend.

Examples of behaviour changes in students bear out a concern that Chinese academics have regarding emotion recognition; namely, that students will develop ‘performative personalities’ (表演型人格), feigning interest in class if this becomes another metric on which their academic abilities are judged. Some students found staring straight ahead was the key to convincing the system they were focused. Experts who agree that the cameras elicit this performative instinct, however, are not in agreement about how to respond. Shanghai Jiaotong University professor Xiong Bingqi castigates the cameras as a “very bad influence on students’ development[… that] takes advantage of students” and should be removed. He Shanyun, an associate professor of education at University, believes the ‘role-playing’ effect could be mitigated if classroom applications of emotion recognition are not tied to rewards and disciplinary measures against students, and are only used for follow-up analysis of students’ learning progress. Shanghai University of and Economics law professor, Hu Ling, emphasised that schools needed to do the work to convince parents and students that the technology was not being used to assess academic performance. Yet, to place the onus for seeking consent on the school alone absolves the companies of responsibility. [Source]

One of the authors of the study told Reuters, “We believe that their design, development, deployment, sale and transfers should be banned due to the racist foundations and fundamental incompatibility with human rights.” The application of this technology in the classroom comes with similar problems similarly problematic, a point Chinese web users made en masse to a 2019 article on AI behavioral analysis being implemented in a Shanghai classroom.

At Rest of World, Meaghan Tobin and Louise Matsakis argued that emotion recognition technology is not only useless in the classroom, but that it may also be harmful:

“In the competitive Chinese educational environment, it’s easy for companies to pander to parents’ anxieties about their children’s success,” said Ahmed. School administrators may also see the technology as a way to attract state funding and produce educational improvements overnight. In places like the United States and , facial and emotion recognition tools have been used in schools for safety and to boost attendance.

The Article 19 report documents a range of Chinese companies that offer emotion recognition for education, including tech giants like Lenovo. One firm claimed to have built an interface for teachers that displays “problem student warnings,” which flag emotions like sadness or fear. The program combines emotion recognition with academic performance to categorize students according to different archetypes. The “falsely earnest type,” for instance, is someone who listens in lectures but gets bad grades.

[…] Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Kansas, cautioned that not only can these technologies amplify students’ anxieties, they’re also highly fallible. “We don’t know yet how good the algorithm is,” said Zhao. “Can you really capture all students’ emotional patterns? What does it really mean to be paying attention?” [Source]

At The Guardian, Michael Standaert reported on Shenzhen-based Taigusys, one of the emotion recognition technology companies mentioned in the Article 19 report, that claims its technology can stop violence in prisons:

“Violence and suicide are very common in detention centres,” says Chen. “Even if police nowadays don’t beat prisoners, they often try to wear them down by not allowing them to fall asleep. As a result, some prisoners will have a mental breakdown and seek to kill themselves. And our system will help prevent that from happening.”

[…] Chen, while aware of the concerns, played up the system’s potential to stop violent incidents. He cites an incident where a security guard stabbed about 41 in the province of Guangxi in southern China last June, claiming it was technologically preventable.

[…] “This is a familiar and slightly frustrating narrative that we see used frequently when newer, ‘shiny’ technologies are introduced under the umbrella of safety or security, but in reality video surveillance has little nexus to safety, and I’m not sure how they thought that feedback in real time would fix violence,” Marda told the Guardian. [Source]

Parents in China are understandably anxious about their children’s education, particularly their college entrance examination results. A recent graphic published by found a direct correlation between a student’s gaokao score and their mean monthly salary in a first job.

Despite recent government efforts to make the exam and education system more egalitarian in recent years, vast differences in the quality of education between rural and urban areas mean that rural students are left behind even in high performing schools. Cheating scandals have further shaken faith in the system. In 2020, a Southern Metropolis Daily investigation found that 242 students in Shandong Province had their gaokao score stolen by undeserving but well-connected imposters. Rural students aren’t the only ones left behind by China’s education system. At The Economist, David Rennie wrote that blind students are, in practice, barred from taking the gaokao, unfairly excluding them from China’s best universities:

[…] In 2014 China announced that students would be allowed to take the national university entrance examination, the fearsome gaokao. This breakthrough followed years of official foot-dragging. In 2015 almost 9.5m candidates took the exam. Just eight students took a special version in Braille or large print. No official count of blind school-pupils exists in China. But if the proportion of American youngsters with legally registered visual handicaps is taken as a guide, as many as 80,000 of those taking the gaokao each year should be blind.

Alas, this also remains a frustrating moment to be blind and Chinese. Of 10.7m students who sat the gaokao this summer, just five took the Braille papers for the blind. Since 2015 candidate numbers have never exceeded ten in a single year, leading some Chinese to grumble about “wasting national resources” on the Braille gaokao, says Mr Cai. That ignores other hurdles still to be dismantled, he argues, noting that only about 30 Chinese universities admit blind students, and that even some of those fail to offer accessible tests and textbooks on a systematic basis. Other universities exclude the blind with medical tests and other gambits. Education officials do see a need to look after the disabled, he says. The problem is low expectations, and an attitude towards the blind and others that “what we give you is what’s best for you”. Doctors play a role in making families timid, too, says Mr Cai, who lost his sight at ten. Once they decide a progressive disability cannot be cured, they too often abandon hope and counsel risk-avoidance.

Nonetheless a handful of blind students manage to stay in the mainstream school system and achieve gaokao scores that entitle them to apply for elite colleges, a feat that reflects luck, talent but also years of grinding toil. One such student, Ang Ziyu, a serious youth from the inland city of Hefei, is attending the Shanghai training course. He must wait until late August to learn if his score of 635 is enough to enter Beijing Normal University, a teacher-training school. He expects no special allowance to be made for years of having schoolwork read to him by his parents, or the trickiness of taking the gaokao in Braille, a tactile form of printing that is ill-suited to transliterating Chinese characters. Mr Ang currently leans towards teaching at a blind school after graduation. But he has heard that attending college often leaves students eager to explore new possibilities. “I feel like that, too,” he says shyly. [Source]

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