How a Powerful Spy Camera Invented at Duke Ended Up in China’s Hands

High-tech camera, conceived by scientists for the Pentagon, finds light by moving east

Five years ago, a group of Duke University scientists developed a pioneering gigapixel camera to provide long-range surveillance for the U.S. Navy through a sponsorship from the Pentagon.

The technology, never picked up by the U.S. government, is now being used by Chinese police to identify people from nearly a football field away, after lead Duke researcher David Brady moved to China in 2016 to kick-start his business.

.. Surveillance startups using AI are booming in China as Beijing spends $30 billion a year on public-safety projects, including a vast network of cameras that aims to cover public squares, major crossroads and train stations. To feed that demand, Mr. Brady’s Aqueti China Technology Inc. developed Mantis, a 19-lens camera with processors that combine images into a 100-megapixel frame that users can zoom in on in extraordinary detail.

.. “A government doesn’t need the hand of technology to be oppressive,” he said.

As We Become Cameras

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers).

—Susan Sontag, “The Image-World” (1973)

Before the industrial revolution, it was uncommon for clocks to have minute hands. Only a very select class could afford a private timepiece until the 20th century.

.. These days, time is so common it is invisible.

.. Still, our time-appetite is never sated: Stock traders are working hard against physical barriers to coordinate their process below the millisecond.

Like images, a capitalist society requires time.

.. Glass failed because it was a tool for creating an order of magnitude more images before they were ready to be consumed.

.. Skeptics rightly asked “Are you taking a video of me right now?” because there was no conceivable place to view such images. Our appetite hadn’t grown large enough, nor had the software to cater to it. Beme, Snapchat, Facebook, and likely dozens of others are building that consumption software right now.

.. What happens when images are integrated as fully into our reality as time?

.. We are approaching a world in which visual and auditory presence at a distance—seeing as another, instantly—is not a rare luxury good, but a basic assumption of society and industry.

.. Sontag’s image-world is dark and instrumental: images are class succor and control. Logical enough from the perspective of 1970s photography, in which camera ownership and image distribution were limited to the relatively powerful. The era we are in the midst of, with a profusion of cheap, miniature, wearable, networked cameras and screens, is quite different.

.. As they become ubiquitous, I doubt we will think of these things as cameras much longer. We hardly think of the tiny quartz wafers inside every integrated circuit as “clocks,” if we think of them at all. Cameras will become equally invisible facilitators of remote vision.

With the iPhone 7, Apple Changed the Camera Industry Forever

The new iPhone uses circuitry, software, and algorithms to create images that look and feel as if they came out of high-end cameras.

.. Thus far, expensive stand-alone cameras with great lenses have been the ones able to offer what is called “bokeh,” a way to blur the background and focus on the subject in the foreground. This is especially useful when shooting portraits. It has been difficult to achieve on smartphones because of hardware limitations. Apple designed a new beefy image-processing chip for the iPhone 7 Plus