Exporting enslavement: China’s illiberal artificial intelligence

In 1989, I had the privilege of visiting Tiananmen Square in Beijing only a few months after the famous June Fourth protests that the Chinese govermnent violently suppressed. Our tour guide showed us black marks on the pavement that were left by fires during the conflict—a memory that has not faded.

Much has changed since then. China is now a world leader in many areas of science and technology, including artificial intelligence (AI). But the nature of the Chinese government has not changed, and as Ryan Khurana points out in a recent online article in National Review, its illiberal policies may transform AI into a weapon that similar governments around the world can use to enslave their citizens.

To avoid confusion, I should define a couple of political terms. In the sense I intend here, the term liberal refers to what political scientists call “classical liberalism.” Simply put, a liberal government in this sense encourages the liberty of its citizens. It acknowledges fundamental rights such as the right to life, the rights to worship freely and express one’s views without fear of government reprisal, and the right to participate meaningfully in political affairs. The intention of the founders of the United States of America was to form a liberal government in this sense.

By contrast, illiberal governments are top-down operations in which those in charge have essentially unlimited power over the mass of citizens. Most monarchies were set up this way in theory, and from its founding the Peoples’ Republic of China has behaved in a consistently illiberal way, and continues to do so under President Xi Jinping. Anything that assists the Chinese government in spying on its citizens, learning about their private as well as public actions, and controlling their behavior so that they conform to a model pleasing to the government is going to get a lot of support. And AI fits this bill perfectly, which is one reason why China is not only pouring billions into AI R&D, but exporting it to other countries that want to spy on their people too.

Khurana points out that Zimbabwe, an African country well-known for its human-rights abuses, has received advanced Chinese AI technology from a startup company in exchange for letting the firm have access to the country’s facial-recognition database. So China is helping the government of Zimbabwe to keep tabs on its citizens as well. Maybe Zimbabwe will come up with something like China’s recently announced Social Credit system, which is a sort of personal reliability rating that eventually every person in China will receive. Think credit rating, only one based on the government’s electronic dossier of your behavior: what stores you visit, what friends you have, what meetings you go to, what TV shows you watch, and whether you go to church.

Khurana says that we are engaged in a kind of arms race reminiscent of the old Cold War conflict between the Soviet Union and its satellites, and what used to be called the Free World. Back then, the game was to see whether the U. S. or the U. S. S. R. could dangle the most attractive technological baubles in front of this or that country to tempt it toward one side or the other. It wasn’t only military technology, but weaponry was the trump card.

Things are different now, and AI is not like a howitzer—you can do lots of things with it, both peaceful and warlike. Or liberal and illiberal. But unless a smaller country has already developed a capable AI technological base of its own, it is likely to want only turn-key systems already designed to do particular things. And companies in China who have learned how to help the government use AI to monitor and control people will naturally find it easiest to help other governments do the same illiberal thing.

Khurana says the U. S. side is currently losing this battle. The federal government and military have been slow to get up to speed on using AI for defensive purposes. When the Department of Defense tried to engage Google in a cooperative AI project to identify terrorists, the company pulled out, and other attempts to use AI in the military have been stymied because critical pieces of intellectual property turn out to be linked to Russian or Chinese ownership.

There are two aspects to this problem. The international aspect is that around the world, Chinese AI is coming with illiberal strings attached, and governments with little interest in protecting their citizens’ freedom are eagerly following China’s lead in using AI to spy on and suppress their peoples. The domestic aspect is that the U. S. is going perhaps too far in the direction of pretending that we are all one big happy AI family, and that we can get AI technology from anywhere in the world and use it for our own private, liberal, or defensive purposes.

But the world is not that way. Back when wars depended mainly on hardware, nations contemplating future conflicts made sure they stockpiled essential materials such as tungsten and vanadium before starting a war. Now that international conflicts increasingly involve cyberwarfare and AI-powered technology, it is foolish and shortsighted to ignore the fact that China is flooding the globe with their AI products and services, and to pretend we don’t have to worry about it and will always be able to outsmart them. Physical weapons have a way of being used, and the same is true of AI designed for illiberal purposes. Let’s hope that freedom doesn’t get trampled underfoot in the rush of many countries to get on the Chinese AI bandwagon.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store. 


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