Face recognition in China

I recently learned that face recognition, led by unicorns SenseTime and Megvii, has reached the level of accuracy and comprehensiveness that it is percolating into retail and banking, and moreover police are using it to detect suspects, or so various media articles say, like this one. Just Google “face recognition china.” I’m both surprised and impressed. Of course, in hindsight, what they did was mostly collect, aggregate, and organize enough data to train the deep learning models to the level that they can be put to production. The Chinese government has, after all, resident identity cards for all Chinese citizens with photos. I was certainly somewhat envious of the people involved in that in China, and I feel like such a failure compared to them, and that my life has been so boring and uneventful in comparison. Of course, whether I’m suited to do deep learning is another matter. After playing a bit with neural nets, including on the canonical MNIST data set, I sure was disappointed, and I understood immediately why this guy, who is doing a machine learning PhD at Stanford, had said to me that deep learning is very engineering heavy. I wish I had the enthusiasm and motivation for stuff like GPUs. As for that, all I’ve done was play with CUDA in a way so minor almost as if I did absolutely nothing. Again I don’t see myself as terribly suited towards engineering (I’m too much a purist at heart), but I might eventually be compelled to become interested in that, and once I do, I don’t think I’ll do badly. This also makes me wonder what I would’ve ended up like had I stayed in China. I’m sure I would’ve been weird there too, though I would also be more like everyone else. I wonder what I would have ended up majoring in there, and what I would’ve ended up doing afterwards. I’d like to think that I would have gotten a much better education and cultural experience there, though of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. For instance, in America, Asian quotas means you are judged relative to other Asians, but being in China means that automatically, and China, by virtue of having low resources per capita, is, needless to say, a grossly competitive society with fewer second chances, and thereby even harsher on late bloomers, though surely, the gaokao happens at age 18, whereas in America, grades start necessarily mattering at as early as age 14-5, when many are still very immature. I must acknowledge that as much as I dislike various aspects of the American education system, it is extremely generous, from what I see, relatively speaking, in tolerating failure at a young age. In China, you test into a specific department at a university, and once you’re in, it’s very hard to change, which means some land in majors they end up finding themselves unsuitable for. At age 18, it’s really hard to make such a decision, especially when you don’t really know anything about the actual content of the major, which is usually the case when one is a clueless kid. This is why I say that before you commit officially to an area, always try to learn something about it on your own beforehand to increase confidence that you actually have at least reasonable, and preferably high, talent for it.

On the broader topic of technology in China, it is needless to say that they are still quite a ways behind America and the advanced Western countries. Look at what the ZTE ban has done. China has its own CPUs but not the ecosystem for it. China still buys and deploys much of its most advanced military technology, including jet engines and surface-to-air missiles, an indicator that its indigenous versions of those are still seen as unproven, unreliable, and of lower quality, though surely they’ve made great strides on that the past decade. I stumbled on the video of this military parade held on August 1st, 2017 to mark the 90th anniversary of the Nanchang Uprising that showcased some of the latest developments. I didn’t like it all that much at first, with its overall presentation, the imagery and music in sync, kind of, how should I say it, corny, and I felt the music paled in comparison to the music of the Soviet Red Army, which is very hard to beat, at least based on my taste, though listening to the music again, I grew to like it more. Surely, I would characterize the whole thing as rather sinister, and representative portions of that would be this and this. Musically, the part that left the most memorable impression was this, and to be honest, I found the non-musical aspect of that part both awkward and sinister, especially coupled with the music. I’m sure many people in the West would view this parade as rather weird, or even effeminate, as much as I hate that stereotype of East Asians in America.

Yet in spite of overall and in some cases critical backwardness, China is managing to unveil a face recognition system at a level of sophistication and scale, and also scariness/creepiness that many in America could only dream of. Surely, that was far from my expectation. Who knows. Maybe in a decade, China will have a nationwide genome database. I say this with the awareness that for anything of scale, there is a tremendous advantage to homogeneity and central organization. We already see, in the case of face recognition, China’s using this to compensate for its inferior technology as far as strict quality and capability is concerned.

As far as I can tell, Chinese and Chinese society place a strong emphasis on STEM and the society as a whole is far more scientifically literate than American society, which is advantageous for certain pro-STEM policies and government, though surely, China is still struggling to produce the best people in many areas, for which the corresponding elite subcultures in the West are difficult if not impossible to transmit. It will be very interesting to see what kind of novel stuff comes out of China organically over the next decade or so, especially as China seeks further to create its own distinct ecosystem, as opposed to remaining in many ways still a subsidiary of America and Russia. In any case, I am quite a fan of the political culture of China, and on the contrary, I am rather sick of the one in America.

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