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Smile, it’s office time!

Face authentication just stepped up one notch: now it is also checking your mood. Image credit: Canon Information Technologies

We are all living on a small blue marble, as seen from the Moon. But, as you zoom in, cultures are quite different, sometimes more than oceans away, This is the case, at least so it seems, for the perceived value of privacy, seen as a non negotiable one in Europe, a monetizable one in the US, basically unheard of in China and other Far East Countries (Singapore included).

Canon Information Technology, a subsidiary of Canon in China, has installed AI-based image recognition system to allow access to their office. This is nothing new, several companies around the world, and many airports, use facial recognition to permit entry. What is new is that the Canon office are only accessible to smiling faces. If you are grumpy you are not admitted. This is possible through emotion recognition, a new AI field that goes beyond a fake smile by looking at several subliminal tell-tale sign of your mood. Hence faking happiness will not work: that day you will not be allowed access to the office. Apparently, Canon believes that this would improve office mood and productivity. It is no longer that your job should be satisfying and make you happy: you need to be happy to work!

It goes one step further. If you had a nice sleep, feeling pink you will be admitted entry, but if for any reasons when on the job you turn sour the camera on your computer will detect it and will block any attempt to reserve a meeting room or engage with other people: your feeling blue might be contagious and you are “digitally” isolated as a way of bad mood containment.

It seems crazy to me, but I live far away from China and I was grown in a completely different cultural setting. Canon announced the smile recognition system last year and it did not generate any surprise, nor negative comments, a proof on the ubiquitous presence and acceptance of systems controlling each individual. Don’t think this is just “local”. Microsoft in response to the growth of tele-work has embedded in its MS 365 office suite a set of control features to allow supervision and data analytics on the way people work, how much time they spend on a single page, the speed of typing. AI is suing these data to infer the productivity, or lack thereof, the effectiveness of cooperation, possible problems in interactions among a team and much more. Of course the availability of these features does not imply that they are used, the same way that selling guns does not imply that people will use them (but statistically it turns out to be the case…).

These workplace control seems to be common in China, and socially accepted: personal computers and workstations provide data that are analysed to detect productivity issues, CCTV cameras are used to detect how long people spend on their lunch and peoples’ cellphones have an app that allows the employer to monitor the employees movements when out of the office. This is Big Brother squared. And yet it seems to be fine.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that you may not be living in China. I get monthly report on my use of mails, the average time it takes to provide a reply, how many mails I respond, what are the hourly distribution (both receiving and replying) and of course the data analytics is growing a very detailed map of my interactions, whom I am corresponding to, whom I am more solicitous in responding and much more. Not sure if “they” read the text of my mails (I would bet so) but for sure at least the header (subject) is intercepted. Yet, even if I am aware of all of this, I keep using emails (I remember my big boss telling me “if you have something sensitive to report, call me, don’t send me a mail).

And this is just skimming the surface of my privacy space. “They” know what I write in this blog, what I search on the web, what I buy (and when), how I pay, where I go…. Oh, but I should rest assured that my privacy is protected, in Europe we have GDPR, haven’t we?  -;)

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.