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China Puts AI Monitors in Every Cell to ‘Make Prison Breaks Impossible’

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Chinese authorities are preparing a new high-security “smart jail” that will rely on artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure that prisoners are watched at all hours of the day, even without human guards on hand.

Yancheng prison will be teeming with surveillance cameras and hidden sensors that extend into every cell as a means to recognize, track, and monitor every inmate while feeding data to a central “brain,” according to South China Morning Post.

Using facial identification software, movement analysis, and other machine-learning technology, the system will generate comprehensive reports on each prisoner, and will alert authorities if any abnormal activity or changes are detected, such as erratic behavior or anxiety on the part of a prisoner.

Project representative Meng Qingbiao told SCMP:

“For instance … if an inmate has been spotted pacing up and down in a room for some time, the machine may regard the phenomenon as suspicious and suggest close-up checks with a human guard.”

Officials are hoping that the high-tech upgrade will seal the lid on Yancheng prison, which is run directly by the Ministry of Justice and has been described as a “luxury prison” due to its relatively comfortable conditions and the number of high-profile inmates housed there.

About 1,600 prisoners were held at Yancheng prison as of last year, a number that has grown amid President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Prisoners include Gu Kailai, the wife of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai; Rui Chenggang, a former anchor for state-run broadcaster China Central Television; and a number of figures who have been charged with corruption.

Meng explained that the cutting-edge system, developed by surveillance tech company Tiandy and a number of public research institutions including Tianjin University, will allow the system to track a huge number of inmates simultaneously, with little need for a human guard to monitor camera feeds.

Meng explained:

“The cutting edge technology allows each camera to track up to 200 faces at the same time. So the prisoners might be able blend in the crowd in a packed corridor, busy canteen, exercise session or even massive brawl, but they will never be able to slip away completely.”

With such once-powerful figures in the jail, officials hope to make bribery instantly detectable by the AI system–and a thing of the past.

“Prison breaks will be history,” Meng added.

Tiandy is hoping to market the technology to South American nations where over-filled, squalid jails are teeming with violence and security breaches.

Experts have criticized the Yancheng prison model and the detrimental effect it has on prisoners’ mental health and human rights. Physiology professor Zhang Xuemin of Beijing Normal University expressed concern that the high-tech AI panopticon will “definitely affect” the prisoners’ lives and mental state, and could backfire on authorities if prisoners learn to exploit and game the AI system.

China has grown increasingly fond of using AI for social control purposes in recent years as its technology advances and hardware becomes cheaper to manufacture.

Cameras have been installed in public housing units to identify and discourage illegal subletting or even bar unauthorized residents from entering homes.

Students’ have also been given “smart uniforms” equipped with tracking chips to end truancy and monitor children’s activities–such as when they fall asleep in class or attempt to leave campus.

Chinese authorities began piloting the development of smart cities equipped with artificial intelligence in 2012 as a means toward managing chaotic city traffic, making public buildings more energy efficient, and assisting in the implementation of the law, according to state-run newspaper Global Times.

Yet China isn’t the only place to apply artificial intelligence to its prisons.

Singapore has also experimented with the notion of computerized prisons and has discussed potentially building new guard-free prisons. And in Britain, Liverpool’s Altcourse Prison installed its own AI system in 2016 to halt the smuggling of contraband into its jails.

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