The "smile recognition" — rather than "facial recognition" — technology was installed at the company's Chinese subsidiary, Canon Information Technology, last year. The tool allows employees into certain office rooms only if they are smiling, according to financial newspaper Nikkei Asia.
A Canon spokesperson told the outlet that the technology was meant to bring more cheerfulness into the office after the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have been wanting to encourage employees to create a positive atmosphere by utilizing this system with the smile detection setting ‘on,’" the spokesperson said. "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 positive and lively atmosphere [sic]."
The subsidiary — which says it is "developing deep learning-based AI technologies" including "people and object detection in images and videos" — has a location in Beijing.
The report comes as China ups its use of surveillance technology to track its citizens. Some companies monitor employees' computers, for example, to promote more efficient work, according to the outlet.
Andy Wang, an IT engineer in Shanghai who spoke to Nikkei Asia, said he helped build software called DiSanZhiYan, or "Third Eye," to track employees' computer activity. He quit after two years.
"It does not make sense," he told Nikkei Asia. "We can't work nonstop in the office. We need to take some breaks."
A Beijing-based software company Zhongduantong requires employees to check in at certain locations within specific time frames and send photos of their surroundings as proof of their presence at work, the outlet reported.
Other apps mentioned in the report track how much time workers spend in the bathroom or out of the office.
"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 lecturer Nick Srnicek told Nikkei Asia. "For example, with the development of digital technologies, management can monitor workers who are not in a centralized space."
He added that "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."