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

“Smile recognition” in action.
Image: Canon Information Technologies

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.

Comments

And what if you frown? Are you fined one credit for the facial morality statute?

F@#$ you, you &$$ à#s?! #_ and #&_a#: piece of #d$ machine!
I have unlimited credits!

And unlimited toilet paper!

It blows my mind how tone-deaf these companies are, and it seems to be worse the older a company is. This reeks of corporate bloat and older, out-of-touch upper management.

There are three surefire ways to address moral:

1. Better pay
2. Better hours
3. Better benefits

If you’ve stepped beyond those three to force false "moral boosts", you should probably consider stepping down.

I believe there were studies that contradict this, saying people prefer to be valued and appreciated for their work.

Wait I’m confused, how does giving someone better pay, hours, and benefits contradict with what you said?

Very different things. Pay/hours/benefits are a terrible substitute for recognition.

Ok I gotcha. And I see your link below as well. I think it just struck me as strange how you worded it, like it was so black and white. Because those things ClassicRKR listed are pretty clear signs of value from an employer as well. But I understand what you’re saying, that’s not everything, which makes sense.

And I agree. It would be super swell if somehow everyone realized that people enjoy being treated like people, and not just emotionless workers. But capitalism amirite?

Sorry if my first message wasn’t clear enough

All 3 of those are forms of showing being valued. There can be a 4th which is general respect and recognition.

Not necessarily. It could just be a form of seniority. The study I remember was exactly about that point (employers thinking pay/benefits were enough, while employees putting a much bigger importance on personal valuation).

Here’s one example, but Google will no doubt dig up more:
https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/243258

Devil’s advocate: simply firing those with poor morale is also sure to raise your company’s morale score in the short term. It’s just math.

I’d note that you’re right about bloated older companies being the ones to consider this. Once you stop caring about growth (or even retention), only then does culling those who bring the score down seem like an option.

And now I will go take a shower to rinse the stink of this idea off me.

You need to get better at playing Devil’s advocate, then.

There is direct correlation between morale and job security. If you work at a company and they begin firing people for inane things like not being happy enough, that is absolutely going to cause widespread loss of morale.

Heh sure. I’m trying to think of a silly analogy that would be a similar spin. Like a highway is safer the instant after there is a 12 car pileup because people are in stop and go traffic? I dunno just spit balling here ha.

I think the lesson to take away is that people aren’t statistics. I mean yes they technically are, but they are people first and as long as businesses keep looking at them as statistics first rather than people first, we’ll continue to have stories and reactions like this.

"The beatings will continue until morale improves."

To be fair, research has shown that smiling, even a fake smile, leads to a positive impact on mood, so this might actually have some upside, though not enough to balance out the dystopian side of things.

Time to buy one of these?

Amen

I know, I know, it‘s been coming up too often these days but still: 1984 anyone?
This workplace is terrifying!

Amazon is perhaps the prime example of this dynamic …

I see what you did there.

So what’s the point of progress if most people work crazy hours and get this Big Brother bullshit as a bonus? Isn’t technology and automation designed to make our lives easier?

China is really leaning into the 1984 Big Brother-sequel tropes of an evil dystopian empire.

Honestly, if I had to force a smile before I enter the office, it would make me even more depressed

Sounds like an executive played the game "We happy few"…

(Disclaimer, I’ve only played the first 30 mins so far)

The more money these companies make, the more weirdly dystopian they become. I’m not happy 100% at my job and I enjoy my work. If I had to smile before entering an office, or if I was being monitored all day every day, I’d quit. No job is worth that crap, especially if they make you work long hours and don’t pay you all that well.

"No job is worth that crap, especially if they make you work long hours and don’t pay you all that well."

Until all the jobs are like that… (worries the cynic in me).

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