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The vaguely dystopian technology fueling China’s Olympic Games

The Olympics aren’t just about sport, they’re a showcase for the host country. And this year’s Winter Games are no different, as China hopes to demonstrate its advancements in technology with an entire town’s worth of machine-made snow, the rollout of the world’s largest digital currency — and, if all goes to plan, zero Covid-19 transmission.

Beijing is taking the second mid-pandemic Games to new heights inside a “closed loop,” a sealed and guarded area from airport to arena, and deploying fleets of robots and unprecedented levels of health tracking and surveillance. Nearly 3,000 athletes, plus thousands more participants, including coaches, staff, and media, will be inside the bubble.

The Games will show off high-tech innovations at every scale — from artificial intelligence to internet infrastructure and even a new way to keep ice cool. They’ll also serve as a venue for the official rollout of China’s digital currency, e-CNY, which will be one of the only acceptable payment mechanisms in the Zhangjiakou Winter Olympic Village.

Here are five technologies that won’t just power the Beijing Olympics — but promise to transform life in the country long after the Games end.

Robots

The Olympic Village will be populated with hundreds of robots that will help maintain distance between visiting athletes and local staff by doing everything from delivering packages to flipping burgers. Robots will assist with medical care for the athletes, collect garbage, and even dispense hand sanitizer. Roving robots will scan the air for Covid-19 particles and disinfect rooms. A fleet of 120 catering robots are available to serve food 24/7 in the media area canteen. Although their deliveries are accurate, they’re perhaps having a bit less fun than CUE5, the 2-meter-tall free-throw-shooting robot from the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Outside of the Olympic bubble, robots are already being deployed on city streets and university campuses to deliver packages and, inside event venues and hotels, to bring amenities to guests. Food delivery and e-commerce giants Alibaba, Meituan, and JD.com have committed to putting thousands of robot couriers on the roads to cut costs.


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The app that keeps everyone sealed

Everyone inside the Olympics closed loop — athletes, media, and spectators alike — is required to use the specially developed My 2022 app starting two weeks before they enter the sealed area. Once inside the Olympic Village, participants also undergo daily PCR testing. The app tracks participants’ health data like vaccination information as well as the results of the daily tests. 

In order to leave their rooms and travel between facilities, everyone inside the loop must receive a green signal signifying negative PCR results within the previous 24 hours by scanning their passes. The stoplight system resembles the system of QR codes that Chinese residents have used to move about the country during the pandemic.

Although protecting citizens’ privacy and curbing unnecessary information collection has been a major policy priority of China’s internet regulators, especially with the passage of the Personal Information Protection Law last year, an investigation by Citizen Lab found that the My 2022 app collects user information and shares it with third parties: some of China’s biggest tech companies, including Huawei, Xiaomi, Tencent, and iFlytek. The app’s privacy policy specifies that it may share user information without consent in circumstances involving national security and public health concerns. The app also contains a list of keywords that can be censored, reports Citizen Lab, including those in Tibetan and Uyghur script.


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Smart beds

Athletes will be equipped to count more than just sheep in their beds at the Olympic Village, where the apartments have been fitted with memory foam mattresses that monitor breathing and heart rate. These smart beds are designed to capture an athlete’s “body signature” and can even send reports to their coaches about changes in vitals.

While the high-tech beds might help some of the world’s top athletes sleep more soundly, workers in China have not found the deployment of vital-sign tracking technology in the workplace quite as comfortable. When employees at one Hangzhou-based tech company were given office chair cushions that could similarly monitor their vital signs, heart rates, and levels of alertness, they found that their supervisors were also using the technology to track their breaks and working hours. One employee likened the feeling of being constantly watched at work to being in jail.

All 5G, all the time

Remember when American and European officials were stressed about the security of Chinese 5G technology? At these Games, there’s no choice but to use it. The technology will serve as the backbone of communications inside the closed loop, powering everything from a high-speed rail between Beijing and the Olympic Village to driverless retail minibuses. The train will be equipped with a high-definition CCTV broadcasting studio and deliver steady internet access, even while traveling through tunnels at 350 kilometers per hour.

Inside the Olympic Village, 5G will make the internet faster for visiting athletes, who will reportedly be allowed to access social media sites that are typically blocked in China. But the U.S. Olympic organizing committee has warned that online activity inside the bubble is likely to be surveilled.

It’s not the first time 5G has been touted at the Winter Olympics. South Korean carrier KT boasted that the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang would feature the first 5G service. There was just one problem: it was limited to demos, because the first 5G handsets wouldn’t be available to buy for another year.


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Sorry, no cash (or credit cards)

There will be no “disorderly expansion of capital” inside the Olympic Village — the Games will serve as the first large-scale opportunity for visitors from outside of China to use the country’s new digital currency. The central bank digital currency will enable Chinese authorities to trace how money moves through the country and is intended to be as frictionless to use as popular digital payment platforms WeChat Pay and Alipay. Inside the Olympic bubble, the only acceptable forms of payment will be cash, Visa cards, and the digital currency, e-CNY.

The digital yuan is already accepted inside China via WeChat, JD.com, and Alipay, and officials report that at least 140 million people had already registered for it by November 2021. But overseas users will be able to use it for the first time during the Games. Visiting athletes and coaches will be able to pay with wearable wristbands that they can wave to pay with e-CNY inside the Olympic Village.

https://restofworld.org/2022/the-technology-fueling-beijing-olympic-games/