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Monetizing reality: Tokyo firm paying people to be filmed at home in 'experiment'

A screen capture of the current recruitment copy for Project Exograph is seen. The text reads: "For 200,000 yen, could comprehensive data on someone's everyday life be bought and sold?"

TOKYO -- An IT firm is recruiting people to take part in "Project Exograph," a "social experiment" in which the firm will continuously film participants going about their ordinary lives at their homes for a month in exchange for 200,000 yen (1,832 U.S. dollars).

The company, Plasma, was originally offering only around 130,000 yen, which is effectively an amount equivalent to subsistence-level welfare payments, but raised it to 200,000 yen following internet criticism that the business was exploiting poor people. Its recruitment numbers are rising, and as of Nov. 10 500 people had reportedly applied.

Under the project, participants would have their living rooms, bathrooms, changing areas, kitchens and other parts of their homes wired with cameras that would film them for about a month. The data would then be collected and sent to firms in a way that would make it impossible to identify the people filmed.

The images will then be analyzed to see how they can be used or applied to business. The data would reportedly constitute just a part of what's been shot, and be selected based on understanding from the filmed subject.

Initially, the compensation for participants was set to be 132,930 yen, the amount a person around the age of 30 living in Tokyo's 23 special wards could receive in livelihood protection subsidies.

Plasma's CEO, Hiroki Enno, 28, said, "If artificial intelligence (AI) and robots see progress, then people won't have to work and they could lead lives where they provide data for money. Considering that, we set the amount of money based on the sum required to maintain a healthy and minimum level of living."

On the aims of the experiment, he said, "What do people drink after they get out of the bath, what position are they in when they watch TV -- we can collect that and other kinds of data. Online data, like the information people put into search engines, is already being monetized, but if we could use real life data, then I'm convinced it could be useful for fields such as solving lifestyle-based illnesses and developing new medicine."

After the recruitment call went out online, continued criticism of the scheme was heard among some sections of the public. People said it was ethically troubling, and that the amount it was paying suggested that those receiving welfare weren't entitled to their human rights. The company then re-examined the amount it was offering, and upped the figure to 200,000 yen. It also offered its views on the main points of criticism on its homepage.

The number of applicants is now on the rise. The ratio of male to female applicants is about 4 to 1, with the majority of them aged between their 20s and early 30s. When distributed by earnings, people with income between the 3 million and 4 million yen levels were most prevalent. Some applicants even earned over 10 million yen a year. Under reasons for applying, between 30 and 40% said it was for the money. Others said they wanted to contribute to society by participating.

The company is expected to increase the number of people it will choose for the experiment from the originally planned five or so participants. The firm is also looking into bringing on companies to cooperate with the project. Recruitment will continue until Nov. 15, and filming is set to start on Nov. 25.

Enno graduated from Kyoto University in 2014. When he was a graduate student at the university, he started the company Rist, which developed a system that used AI to visually inspect industrial and pharmaceutical products. He sold the company to Kyocera Corp. in December 2018 and founded Plasma on Nov. 1, 2019.

(Japanese original by Takuya Yoshida, Integrated Digital News Center)

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