The West Midlands is to become the first UK urban 5G testbed area at a cost of up to £50m – with one use for the new tech being China-style AI-powered CCTV cameras with automated facial recognition, according to the government.
The Urban Connected Communities Project, UK.gov-speak for "the latest wheeze we're tipping cash into", is tasked by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (aka Minifun) with trialling 5G, which is the latest global spec for mobile phone comms.
5G itself has been dismissed by former Ofcom director Professor William Webb as a distraction from the real need to fully roll out LTE (4G) tech "not just in rural areas but on trains, in cars, inside buildings and in urban not-spots".
Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton are the three cities in the region that will enjoy 5G coverage first of all. Up to £50m is being spent on the trial, made up of £25m from the West Midlands Combined Authority super-council and £25m from central government, with another £25m reserved for later spending. The cash has been drawn from UK.gov's £200m pot of 5G R&D money.
Initial plans for what to do with the new 5G network are said to include medical consultations being carried out over video link, "connected ambulances" fitted with video conferencing facilities for paramedics to get advice from hospital-based specialists, and live streaming of CCTV from buses.
Disturbingly, Minifun has also drooled over the prospect of connecting AI to live CCTV feeds streamed over 5G, linking the connectivity tech with the kind of abusive technology beloved of autocratic regimes.
"Live streaming of CCTV footage from public transport buses, enabling immediate action against anti-social behaviour. 'Intelligent cameras' using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify incidents could provide the opportunity for far greater coverage than is possible at present," said the government announcement.
AI-powered CCTV for automated facial recognition and population monitoring is widely used in China, with English-language propaganda from the Communist country being carefully sanitised to make it appear that the tech is only used to catch criminals and boost public safety. In reality the system is used by the State to hunt down and capture those who might embarrass officials, among others.
The original concept of an omnipresent surveillance system where those under surveillance cannot tell if they are being watched at any given point is normally attributed to English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who came up with a prison design he named the Panopticon. In Bentham's utilitarian vision, the Panopticon would be a centre for social reform, with prisoners unable to indulge in behaviours not permitted by wardens for fear of instant detection and punishment. ®