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Four Corners report

News story

A recent Four Corners program on ABC TV focussed on claims of human rights abuses against the Uygur Muslim population in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China. The program alleged that a Curtin researcher’s work in the area of facial recognition technology may have been used by Chinese authorities to help recognise individuals belonging to the Uygurs.

Curtin University unequivocally condemns the use of Artificial Intelligence, including facial recognition technology, for any form of ethnic profiling to negatively impact or persecute any person or group.

The allegation is made on the basis of the titles of several refereed publications on which a Curtin researcher is a co-author. Curtin University has been shown no evidence that the published research has been used by the Chinese government. The researcher in question has been at the University for more than 20 years. He has advised Curtin that his involvement was in an informal capacity and was limited to the provision of technical advice on model development to a Chinese research team. He will no longer participate in any work of this kind.

While the claims by Four Corners regarding the activities of the Chinese government are of concern, it is important to be aware that facial recognition technology has significant potential for improving the quality of people’s lives and addressing important global challenges in areas as diverse as security, biomedicine, public safety and education. For example, facial recognition technology is being used in healthcare to diagnose pain and stress in patients who are unable to communicate, and to help diagnose patients with rare intellectual disabilities; to improve security at airport arrival and departure gates; by state and federal police in criminal investigations, counter-terrorism operations and fraud prevention; in sports stadiums and nightclubs to identify people on banned lists; and in confirming people’s identity during online examinations or other tests.

It is also important to note that once research findings have been published openly (which is an increasing requirement of Australian researchers), the use and application of results by third parties is difficult to control.

The rapid development in capabilities associated with Artificial Intelligence is presenting society with significant challenges that require careful navigation. We strongly support initiatives to regulate the use of Artificial Intelligence, including its application to facial recognition, to protect the right to privacy and maintain ethical standards.

As a consequence of the questions raised by Four Corners, the University is considering the procedures that need to be in place when research interactions are undertaken in the absence of a grant agreement, contract arrangement or Memorandum of Understanding. We have established a research working group led by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research to ensure that our procedures governing such informal research interactions are sufficiently clear and robust.

Curtin University is an active participant in an international discussion surrounding the development and use of Artificial Intelligence. We will continue to monitor our policies and supporting procedures and make adjustments as necessary to ensure we can continue to participate effectively in this important advance.

Deborah Terry