“Intelligent Education” or the Panopticon?

Terrifying article on Sixthtone.com about the use of “intelligent education” technology being developed in Chinese classrooms. The Chinese government is actively promoting an extensive AI programme, the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (NGAIDP), spending $150 billion to incorporate AI into every aspect of Chinese society.

The article presents accounts of how cameras are being used in classrooms not only to monitor and analyse what children are doing (as well as their attitudes and emotional states) but also to read what they are writing. The degree of surveillance is quite astonishing. One particular system is called the CCS (Complete Care System) which provides continuous live analysis of how children are engaged in lessons. Classrooms have multiple cameras watching – and presumably recording – the students all the time:

One anonymous Hangzhou No. 11 student I found on the internet tells me she felt shocked and scared when the teacher demonstrated the system in front of the whole class. “The camera can magnify 25 times of what it captures,” she says, adding: “It can see not only your face, but the characters on your notebook. After all, it’s from Hikvision.” Another student tells me his classmates were totally “crushed” after the installation of the system. Because the system gives students a public score, he and his classmates don’t dare nap or even yawn in class for fear of being penalized, an incentive that doesn’t necessarily increase focus on learning. In fact, the students spend their time focusing on staying awake until class ends. “Nobody leaves the classroom during the class break,” he says. “We all collapse on the desks, sleeping.”

It’s early days, according to the article. There are issues with the accuracy of the facial recognition (changing hairstyle or wearing glasses confuses the AI). Supposedly the technology is to support teachers – but doubtlessly there must be concerns about where the data collected about children ends up. Part of a profile to determine other things? Criminality? Job suitability?

Where the article doesn’t go far enough is in the danger of cameras in classrooms being used as a panopticon (worth reading this article by Tom McMullan) to encourage conformity and subservience through the fear of being under surveillance constantly.

It’s worrying, too, about the ongoing slide into objectification (if that’s the right word) of children within school systems. (I’m in no doubt that these school surveillance technologies are not confined to China.) As Foucault‘s pointed out about the subject of the panopticon:

“He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.”