Chinese canon employees must pass an AI smile test to go to work

A new China employee monitoring program requires a smile.

Talk about job satisfaction! Canon China, a subsidiary of the Japanese camera and electronics giant, only wants happy workers. It’s not enough for employees to do their jobs; they must also smile.

Canon Information Technology’s Beijing branch has launched a new type of employee monitoring — smile recognition technology. They positioned artificial intelligent cameras at entrances to be the gatekeepers — allowing only employees to flash a convincing happy grin to enter the building. 

Wanting your employees to be happy sounds laudable — but what does this say about how comfortable we are becoming with creepy surveillance? 

“Workers are not being replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Instead, the management is being sort of augmented by these technologies.”

Nick Srnicek

What went down: The Chinese subsidiary rolled out the employee monitoring cameras without any fanfare last year. They announced it as a part of a set of tools for workplace management: employees must smile at the camera to enter the building and to reserve conference rooms — because no one wants to sit in a meeting with a grumpy person. 

“We have been wanting to encourage employees to create a positive atmosphere by utilizing this system with the smile detection setting ‘on’,” a spokesperson for Canon China told The Financial Times. “Mostly, people are just too shy to smile, but once they get used to smiles in the office, they just keep their smiles without the system which created a positive and lively atmosphere.”

Getting used to it: The lack of attention the “smiling face recognition” technology originally received goes to highlight how we’re all getting used to increasing employee monitoring and companies tracking more bio-information. 

And now, in the post-COVID world, we might be even more used to submitting to screeners and tests, with forms and temperature checks becoming routine for many businesses.

A bigger trend: Automated employee monitoring happens more often than we realize.

Amazon, for example, tracks staff and uses employee monitoring AI to give them a productivity rating, promoting and firing staff based on the lowest ratings, reports The Verge. 

More employers are using remote monitoring software to keep an eye on their remote workers, too.

According to a study by Smarter With Gartner, more than half of large businesses surveyed are using some kind of surveillance, from analyzing emails to collecting biometric data. Some are using webcams to monitor employee attentiveness. They can assess if employees are paying attention by tracking their eye movements and body language. 

Some are even using keyloggers to track typing activity on company laptops. It makes smile-detecting cameras seem benign because of their obviousness. 

“Workers are not being replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Instead, the management is being sort of augmented by these technologies,” King’s College London academic Nick Srnicek told the Financial Times. “Technologies are increasing the pace for people who work with machines instead of the other way around, just like what happened during the industrial revolution in the 18th century.”

We can’t be all smiles all the time: Smiling at work could speak volumes about productivity and job satisfaction, and understanding and measuring happiness became a growing interest among scientists in the past decade. 

Scientists have even calculated happiness by using electromyography to measure the activity of the “smile muscles” in the face, reports Harvard Business Review. And according to a study on happiness and productivity, happy people are 13 percent more productive.

So, it makes sense that Canon would only want happy people in their workforce. But can’t we have a bad day occasionally? 

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