Search giant Baidu has released an open-source tool to detect whether individuals in crowds are wearing face masks, as cities around the country impose rules requiring use of such protection in public spaces.

Why it matters: Authorities in China have taken drastic measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, a new flu-like virus that first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

  • In Hubei, the province at the center of the outbreak, whole cities have been cut off from the outside as China attempts to contain the virus.
  • Several cities including Guangzhou and Beijing are enforcing the use of masks in public areas, including restaurants, shopping malls, and public transport.
  • Mask inspections have largely been manual, making identifying non-mask wearers in crowds difficult.

Details: The face-scanning model uses artificial intelligence to identify people in real-time who are not wearing masks or those who are wearing them incorrectly, Baidu said on Thursday.

  • The system can identify non-mask wearers with 96.5% accuracy, which meets the needs of routine inspections, according to the company. Developers then only need a small amount of data to train the tool for their own use.
  • The model was trained on a dataset of 100,000 faces, Baidu said.
  • The system, which Baidu claimed is the first of its kind, can help businesses check if their employees are wearing masks, and also help authorities speed up mask checks in public places.

Context: Face masks have become a necessity in China, where nearly 1,400 people have died as a result of the infection.

  • Experts around the world say that hand-washing is more important than wearing masks. Nevertheless, masks are seen as mandatory in China.
  • People around the country have opted to isolate themselves in their homes and businesses have implemented work-from-home policies to counter the spread of the disease.
  • Baidu recently released another tool allowing people to determine risk levels for Covid-19 infection using the Chinese government’s diagnosis and treatment plan for the virus as well as records from millions of online medical consultations.

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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