By Jonathan Vanian
March 27, 2018

One of China’s top tech companies is trying to push the frontiers of artificial intelligence by teaching computers to understand scenes from the 1990’s romance-disaster epic Titanic.

The technology, from China company SenseTime, is supposed to distinguish Titanic’s romantic scenes from disaster scenes. Although most humans would have no problem distinguishing Jack and Rose’s blooming love from the Titantic’s sinking, the feat is highly complex for computers.

In a demonstration at MIT Technology Review‘s EmTech Digital conference in San Francisco on Monday, the technology performed well and was able to classify the scenes correctly. It highlights the advancement of artificial intelligence, but also how far it still has to go before becoming able to understand more complex movie scenes outside of public demonstrations.

Dahua Lin, the director of a joint research lab between SenseTime and the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he’s also an assistant professor, played a video of the scene from Titanic in which Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) gently holds Rose (Kate Winslet) as she leans over the bow of the doomed passenger ship like she’s flying. Beneath the video was a small chart indicating whether the company’s computers thought the scene was romantic or action-packed.

After crunching data, presumably taken from thousands of videos and image stills in video clips, the computer determined that the scene was more “romantic” than a “disaster.” Then later, when Lin briefly showed the clip of the Titanic sinking, the computers quickly identified the scene as more of a “disaster” than “romantic.”

Advances in AI technologies like deep learning have led to researchers “training” computers to understand objects in photos and videos. SenseTime’s computers, at least as demonstrated, appear to be able to understand the context behind video clips besides merely identifying the objects. U.S. tech companies like Netflix, are also reportedly exploring the use of AI in similar ways to parse videos and then show viewers promotional clips filled with scenes more likely to appeal to them.

Lin didn’t explain how SenseTime taught its computers to distinguish the context of movie scenes, but instead explained more broadly the company’s work developing AI technologies that can do things like recognize human facial expressions.

SenseTime sells its AI technology to Chinese “video services,” he said, likely referring to YouTube copycats. These corporate customers, he said, want to know which movie scenes individual users prefer in order to encourage them to watch more, although he didn’t explain how those corporate customers accomplish that.

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Asked to describe possible misunderstandings Americans may have about China’s use of AI technologies, Lin cited the country’s use of facial recognition for government surveillance. Human rights activists worry that more sophisticated surveillance cameras could recognize individual faces and create privacy problems, among other issues. But Lin minimized the potential pitfalls, saying that facial recognition is just a “small part” of China’s interest in using AI and that AI could also be used to improve industries like healthcare.

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