The dystopian tech that companies are selling to help schools reopen sooner

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An empty schoolroom with a US flag. Companies are adapting their artificial intelligence products with the hope they can help schools reopen amid the pandemic. | George Frey/Getty Images

This fall, AI could be watching students social distance and checking their masks.

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Thousands of schools nationwide will not be reopening this fall. But in Las Vegas, the private K-12 Meadows School plans to use an artificial intelligence-powered thermal screening system to keep students safe as they return to classes.

The system will scan for signs that students have elevated temperatures — an indication they might have Covid-19 — as they enter buildings for their classes. If they’re flagged, the students will be asked to wait separately for about 10 minutes, and then get their temperature taken again. If the result is within a normal range, they’re cleared to start their day. If not, they’ll be sent home.

“Things are strange enough. Kids are going to be coming to school with masks. They’re going to be meeting friends with masks,” Jeremy Gregersen, the head of school at Meadows, told Recode. “They’re going to be meeting their teachers for the first time in person in strange new ways, and what we want is for kids to feel welcome and to normalize their arrival at school as early as possible.”

Supplying the technology is an artificial intelligence company called Remark Holdings. The company, which also sells facial recognition systems, has been providing a thermal scanning system — which also takes attendance — to more than 100 schools in China for over a year and is now repurposing its tech to assist semi-public places reopening amid the pandemic.

Remark Holdings is not the only company doing so. A slew of firms, many of which already sold surveillance products, are adjusting their technology to the pandemic. The suite of products includes everything from computer programs that can identify whether or not a student is wearing a mask to artificial intelligence that measures how well people are social distancing. Sometimes, these capabilities are sold together as a package.

Ultimately, these companies and their clients hope that the return to class can be made a little safer. Although many schools have delayed their plans to restart in-person classes, some experts discourage putting too much faith in these tools when students do go back to school.

“It’s important that, even perhaps before talking about the privacy concerns around some of these technologies, it’s useful and saves time to take a step back and just ask whether it works,” Amelia Vance, the director of education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, told Recode.

Using thermal imaging to screen for temperatures is a good example. While companies like Remark defend their tech, not everyone who has Covid-19 gets a fever, and not every high temperature is caused by an illness. Vance also says the science behind the technology itself is somewhat “rocky.”

Overall, while there might be some value in collecting different types of data amid the pandemic, these new technologies can also cause new problems and endanger children’s privacy. Here’s what we know so far about how schools are trying to strike a balance.

Computer vision and wearables can measure social distancing

One new surveillance tool being retrofitted for the pandemic is artificial intelligence that can measure social distancing by using software to recognize human beings in images, and then measure how close together they are. The goal is to identify “hot spots” full of traffic, which can help school leaders adjust how they set up the flow of people.

Some of that AI is being offered by companies that already have close relationships with schools. Among them is Avigilon, a company owned by Motorola Solutions that sells a wide variety of artificial intelligence-surveillance tools. The company already has relationships with thousands of schools, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, and has now adjusted its video analytics to measure social distancing.

Actuate is also getting into pandemic-era school surveillance. The company normally sells artificial intelligence that mines through school security video feeds for signs of a brandished weapon — an anti-gun violence measure — but is now offering AI that measures how well people are social distancing. Ben Ziomek, Actuate’s co-founder and CTO, told Recode that 900 schools are interested in the tech for when they reopen, and another 100 are interested in the tech it built specifically for Covid-19.

“It’s pretty easy to have AI identify when a person is in video, and then, when we look at video footage, we extract the relative positions of the people,” he told Recode. “We use those relative positions of people to calculate: ‘Are they within 6 feet of each other?’ ‘How long were they there?’ ‘How many people are there?’ We can also count people; we can show how people move through space.”

Airports and other public spaces have started using similar tech.

Meanwhile, some companies are integrating wearables that are meant to stop infractions of social distancing rules. One school in Ohio is planning to pilot an electronic beacon that could measure how well people are social distancing, as well as aid with contact tracing efforts. A potential privacy benefit to this approach is that the surveillance systems don’t always directly involve cameras.

There are other wearables, however, that are already causing privacy debates. For instance, at Oakland University in Michigan, students are being offered a health monitoring device called a “BioButton” that would stick to their chest during in-person classes and track vital signs. It’s meant to alert university staff if someone seems like they might have Covid-19. Originally, the device was mandatory, but following pushback from students, the school made wearing the BioButton optional.

AI hall monitors detect when people are wearing masks

A slightly different implementation of AI-powered software can quickly determine whether people are wearing personal protective equipment. This technology is being offered by a variety of companies, including Avigilon and Remark Holdings; it’s even being used in the Paris metro system. Now, some companies want to bring the mask-spotting tech to schools.

PreciTaste, which usually sells artificial intelligence tools to the food industry, has designed a kiosk called “AI Welcome Center.” The sensor-laden display offers a voice-activated health quiz and performs temperature checks. The device also uses AI to tell if the person at the kiosk is wearing a face covering.

“We trained it with images of our staff wearing different assorted masks, and the algorithm can just reliably detect whether or not a masked face is present or not,” Charlie Pynnonen, an engineer at PreciTaste, told Recode. “It takes no personally identifying information.”

While the system is being tested with some restaurant clients in New York and Munich, the company is hoping to install the kiosks in schools. The idea is that the system could be deployed at the entrance to dorms or other buildings. PreciTaste says it’s had interest from some schools in the United States, including a school district in Kentucky.

 PreciTaste
PreciTaste, which sells artificial intelligence-based tools to the food industry, is now offering its mask detection systems to schools.

Actuate, the company using AI to measure social distancing, is also working on similar mask-spotting tech. The idea is to detect automatically whether people are wearing masks, and track mask compliance in a given location over time without the need for a human to constantly monitor several video feeds. This mask-detecting software is distinct from new facial recognition technology that’s designed to identify people while they’re wearing masks, which is an increasingly important pandemic-era feature for some security systems.

Covid-19 apps are cheap and easy to deploy

Amid advanced hardware like AI-powered cameras and wearables, one of the most common tools we should expect to see in the weeks to come are apps — and lots of them.

Some companies are launching contract tracing apps specifically built for schools, as universities, including Columbia and Duke, are encouraging some students to download apps that allow students to report symptoms. In New York, schools are being encouraged to take periodical surveys about Covid-19 testing and recent travel history, a task that can be completed with an app.

Experts warn that these new apps come with privacy concerns, and that schools and app providers often aren’t as upfront about the way data is collected by the apps as they should be.

“We don’t know how that information is being protected by the company. We don’t know how it’s being used by the school,” said Vance, from the Future of Privacy Forum. “There hasn’t been a lot of transparency.”

Whether all this technology works as intended is still unclear. Many schools are being encouraged to delay their reopening while others have already committed to remote learning for the foreseeable future. So while companies selling this somewhat dystopian technology stand ready and waiting, reopening many schools seems to be infeasible at the moment, and it’s hard to know just how many schools that are reopening are actually installing such devices.

But that doesn’t mean some of this tech isn’t already at work. Even in empty schools, Acutate’s Ben Ziomek says his company’s artificial intelligence is measuring whether people are entering closed campuses and buildings. Usually, it’s just kids vandalizing school property. After all, they’re very, very bored, he says. They haven’t been to school in months.

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