The University of Science and Technology Beijing (USTB), one of the capital city’s leading seats of learning, is among a group of educational institutions across the country taking part in a national pilot project to test out what could become one of the most commonly used forms of artificial intelligence (AI) in future: facial recognition.

Experts say if successful, the pilot could herald a wave of new applications for the technology, the use of which is growing in various sectors, including security checking, medical treatment and policing.

The universities and colleges taking part are using facial recognition technology on new student registration for the first time this year, and the pilot covers thousands of individuals, who’s faces are being “read” by the systems, essentially being used as confirming their ID.

“This AI application shows China’s universities are actively embracing high technology against the background of China’s ambitious plans to become a global leader in the AI industry,” said Li Yi, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences internet Research Center.

“We expect this type of AI application for university freshmen enrolment, using facial recognition, will improve working efficiency and secure student information, and may also stimulate student interest in AI technology.”

Wang Xin was one of the thousands of freshmen taking part in the pilot, when he turned up at university for his first day at USTB.

He said it was excited being involved in such cutting-edge technology, finishing his enrolment process by having his face scanned, which matched a photo submitted before.

“I just stood in front of the machine, stared at the screen for two seconds, and from that process, all my basic information can now be obtained,” said Wang.

“But some of us found that sometimes our faces couldn’t be recognised by the machine immediately, and we had to try two or three times for it to work – but the whole process still feels much faster than filling in various forms needed in our first few days at university,” he said

“Facial recognition is a novel experience to me, and I’d expect a lot more use of it in future.”

Beijing Normal University, and the China University of Petroleum in the capital are also now adopting the technology for the first time.

The popularity of all sorts of AI-dedicated technology is exploding in China.

The country is fast emerging as a major global player, according to a recent report from Goldman Sachs, with the government and various industries identifying AI as their next big areas of innovation.

The country is now targeting AI as potentially being worth one trillion yuan (US$152 billion) by 2030.

Official US data showed that China overtook the States in 2014 in terms of the number of research journal articles mentioning “deep learning” or “deep neural networks” being produced by Chinese academics, according to US National Science and Technology Council.

China had more than 16,000 patents registered related to AI by October last year, and there are some 700 AI-dedicated companies registered in the country.

Much of the research progress in China is being driven by leading Chinese hi-tech companies Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba – owner of The South China Morning Post – with all three now owning their own AI-dedicated labs in both China and the US.

“We believe the benefits of AI will accrue to companies with unique and substantial data sets [focused on developing so-called best available technology],” said a report written by Goldman Sachs analysts led by Piyush Mubayi.

“These three Chinese AI giants should help crystallise the value in the data from their multiple, distinct businesses as well as their associates.”