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St. Louis Is Grappling With Artificial Intelligence’s Promise And Potential Peril

Crowds wait to enter Busch Stadium for Game 1 of the 2011 World Series in St. Louis on Oct. 19, 2011.
Rachel Lippmann
What can artificial intelligence tell us about the composition of crowds at places like Busch Stadium? A whole lot, says FanCam CEO Tinus Le Roux.

Tinus Le Roux’s company, FanCam, takes high-resolution photos of crowds having fun. That might be at Busch Stadium, where FanCam is installed, or on Market Street, where FanCam set up its technology to capture Blues fans celebrating after the Stanley Cup victory.

As photos, they’re a fun souvenir. But paired with artificial intelligence, they’re something more: a tool that gives professional sports teams a much more detailed look at who’s in the audience, including their estimated age and gender. The idea, he explained Thursday on St. Louis on the Air, “is to help teams understand their fans a bit better … understand when they’re leaving their seats, what merchandise are they wearing?”

Now that the pandemic has made crowd size a matter of public health, Le Roux noted that FanCam can help teams tell whether the audience has swelled past 25% capacity — or how many patrons are wearing masks.

But for all the technology’s power, Le Roux believes in limits. He explained that he is not interested in technology that would allow him to identify individuals in the crowd.

“We don’t touch facial recognition. Ethically, it’s dubious,” he said. “In fact, I’m passionately against the use of facial recognition in public spaces. What we do is use computer vision to analyze these images for more generalized data.”

Not all tech companies share those concerns. Detroit now uses facial recognition as an “investigatory tool.” Earlier this year, that practice led to the wrongful arrest of a Black man. The ACLU has now filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the practice there.

Locally, Sara Baker, policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, said the concerns go far beyond facial recognition.

“The way in which many technologies are being used, on the surface, the purpose is benign,” she said. “The other implication of that is, what rights are we willing to sacrifice in order to engage with those technologies? And that centers, really, on your right to privacy, and if you are consenting to being surveilled or not, and how that data is being used on the back end as well.”

Baker cited the license readers now in place around the city, as well as Persistent Surveillance Systems’ attempts to bring aerial surveillance to the city as a potential concern. The Board of Aldermen has encouraged Mayor Lyda Krewson to enter negotiations with the company as a way to stop crime, although Baltimore’s experience with the technology has yet to yield the promised results.

“That could involve surveillance of the entire city,” Baker said. “In Baltimore, that means 90% of outdoor activities are surveilled. I think we’re getting to a point where we need to have robust conversations like this when we’re putting our privacy rights on the line, because I think we have a shared value of wanting to keep some aspects of our lives private to ourselves.”

To that end, Baker said she’d like to see the St. Louis Board of Aldermen pass Board Bill 95, which would regulate surveillance in the city. She said it offers “common sense guardrails” for how surveillance is used in the city.

Other than California and Illinois, Le Roux said, few states have even grappled with technology’s capabilities.

“I think the legal framework is still behind, and we need to catch up,” Le Roux said.

Le Roux will be speaking more about the ethical issues around facial recognition at Prepare.ai’s Prepare 2020 conference. The St. Louis-based nonprofit hosts the annual conference to explore issues around artificial intelligence. (Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, Prepare 2020 is now entirely virtual and entirely free.)

Prepare.ai’s mission is “to increase collaboration around fourth-industrial revolution technologies in order to advance the human experience.”

Le Roux said he hopes more tech leaders and those who understand the building blocks of technology have a seat at the table as regulations are being written. And Baker said her hope is that local governments proceed with caution in turning to new technologies being touted as a way to solve crime.

“We have over 600 cameras in the city of St. Louis,” she said. “We’ve spent up to $100,000 a pop on different surveillance technologies, and we’ve spent over $4 million in the past three years on these types of surveillance technologies, and we’ve done it without any real audit or understanding of how the data is being used, and whether it’s being used ethically. And that is what needs to change.”

Related Event

What: Prepare 2020

When: Now through Oct. 28

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.