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Canon's AI Cameras Force Employees to Smile to Enter Work

Canon has a dystopian plan to combat low employee morale.

Canon's AI Cameras Force Employees to Smile to Enter Work
A worker self-authenticating with facial recognition. Zephyr18 / iStock

In most dystopic societies, citizens are expected to enthusiastically approve of their worsening situation at all times.

Relatedly, Canon has introduced some new policies and tools to boost morale in its offices, installing a "smile recognition" technology in its AI-enabled cameras mounted throughout the offices of its China-based subsidiary, Canon Information Technology, according to an initial report from The Financial Times.

And this goes to show us that sometimes, great ideas are actually terrible ones.

Canon's invasive AI-enabled 'smile recognition' is not a very foreign idea

This depressing development reveals how companies in China are surveilling employees to uncomfortable levels of intimacy, using AI and algorithms to enforce service with a smile. The firms also monitor which programs employees use while on their computers, to optimize productivity. CCTV cameras are used to observe employees during lunch break, and even when the workers leave the office, mobile apps track their movements. There truly is no escape.

"Workers are not being replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence," said Nick Srnicek of King's College, London, to FT. "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." The company's "smile recognition" cameras were initially announced last year along with a suite of new workplace management tools, but this specific implementation of Canon Information Technology's vision of the future workplace has so far eluded public scrutiny.

However, that Canon's AI and other monitoring technology have gone unnoticed for so long attests to how common surveillance tools of the kind are becoming, both in China, and elsewhere. It's easy to think this level of invasive surveillance is something that only happens in far-away countries, but companies in the U.S. and U.K. are beginning to implement some of the same practices. Take Amazon, which famously squeezes its warehouse workers for every possible means of profit, even if it risks their health, and ranks worker productivity via algorithms to decide which people it can fire (it's the ones who rank the lowest).

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Companies are implementing dystopic suites of invasive tools

And policies like this aren't affecting only the worker class. Several software suites, including Microsoft 365, now feature fully integrated surveillance tools. It goes without saying that more people are working from home than ever before since the pandemic, which has enabled more firms to enable and use these features to surveil the productivity of their workers. Whether U.S. companies have always wanted to do this is up for debate, but a global crisis is a great pretext with which a wide array of super-exploitative technology and policies may become common.

In the wider context of major companies implementing dystopic levels of invasive tools on their workers for extra profit in a time of public emergency and unspeakable suffering, Canon's AI-enabled smile recognition cameras are not the worst thing in the world. Unlike many other systems of behavioral control (which are far more subtle and not always intentional), no one can interact with an AI-enabled smile recognition camera without knowing it. In other words, it's not easy working for a living, rather than living off of others' work. And in the coming years, conditions for the former probably won't improve.

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