More impressive and ambitious than its Belt and Road Initiative, China has been building a global data technology empire, one that is on track to surpass the United States and all Western powers in AI technology and other cutting-edge technological advances. It announced it would do as such in a conference held with foreign diplomats in 2018, setting 2030 as the deadline for China’s AI dominance.
If data is the new oil, as the Taiwanese tech entrepreneur Kai-Fu Lee once stated, then China is seeking to become the new Saudi Arabia. At a remarkable pace and efficiency, China has been at the front line of artificial intelligence and information technology, far outgrowing the stereotypes about Chinese life and society from only decades ago. Chinese tech companies have used AI and deep learning technologies to address the diabetes epidemic, detect cancer at a much faster pace, and reduce driving accidents. To cut down on road deaths, Chinese AI companies have pioneered self-driving trucks, allowing the convenience of high-speed commercial delivery without the 700 or so deaths involving truck drivers each year.
In China, “AI doctor” chatbots have allowed communities in remote areas to access high-quality, affordable healthcare services. During the pandemic, AI tools have also helped accelerate the screening and diagnosis of COVID-19. To further facilitate international business, travel, and diplomacy, Chinese companies are behind AI technology that instantly translates spoken language. These incredible developments by Chinese AI hence showcase the potential improvements to quality of life delivered by AI, as pursued by China and supported by its government.
Yet, China has also used this booming technological industry to pursue much more concerning policies. Irrespective of the Chinese people’s rights to privacy and political power, the Chinese government has been looking to create a totalitarian police state undergirded by AI-powered surveillance networks. China has vowed to install facial recognition video surveillance cameras in every city, town, and village in mainland China, and is projected to have one closed-circuit TV camera for every two people by 2022.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has linked these cameras with behavior-detection and threat-prevention systems of total social and political control that range from predicting travel and shopping habits to curbing disease, crime, and political resistance. In the Xinjiang region of western China, this new dystopian reality has been put into overdrive, with the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority ethnic group, living in what has been characterized as an open-air prison.
At least 1 million Uyghurs have been placed in “re-education” camps in response to the perceived threats posed by religious extremism, sedition, and terrorism, China’s contribution to the U.S.-led Global War on Terror. There have been reports of death, torture, and slave labor in the camps. Those who are not sent to the camps live in a paranoiac hell, with reports of forced assimilation, abortions, sterilizations, police mistreatment, and complete intrusion into the residents’ private lives. Uyghurs lucky enough to escape to other countries are, in some instances, stalked, harassed, abused, and extradited back to then serve in the camps.
To monitor and counter subversive political activity, facial recognition cameras have also been installed all over Tibet, with taxi companies in the capital, Lhasa, partnering with the Chinese government and companies to install the cameras inside taxi cabs. This has been part of a broader CCP campaign to choke off all political freedom from Tibet and fully integrate it into China. The practice has been repeated in Hong Kong, with some lawmakers pushing for Chinese-provided AI surveillance cameras in every classroom to monitor teachers’ and students’ speech.
The technology has made its way outside China’s borders, as well. In Singapore, a purported “strategic partner” of the West, a planned project in partnership with the CCP and Chinese AI companies would retrofit every lamp post on the island with facial recognition cameras. Chinese AI surveillance technology has also been adopted by the Malaysian police. These instances merely scratch the surface of the extent of China’s AI surveillance network at home and abroad.
As with any public policy issue, we must find a way to maximize the “good” and minimize the “bad” associated with this technological development. Norms around AI technology must be shaped and shifted on a global scale. AI technology being used for overwhelmingly benevolent rather than repressive ends must be established and heavily incentivized.
AI must be developed in accordance with humanist values of scientific progress, critical inquiry, and political and economic freedom, rather than be used as a tool to consolidate total state power and suppress democracy. The West cannot stand alone in this struggle, and certainly can help lead it. Below are a few starting points that would help drastically shift the global balance of power and norms when it comes to AI technology.
Civil society groups and scientific research groups should be created and financed to facilitate public debates on AI norms. The institutions that already exist in China, like the Chinese Academy of Sciences – in many respects now a research arm of the People’s Liberation Army – should be encouraged to initiate public debates, as it has done in the past.
Scientists, journalists, dissidents, and public intellectuals working on AI technology, including Yi Zeng, an AI scientist and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Zhao Tingyang, a philosopher on AI technology and human rights at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, should be offered asylum in the West, so that they may continue the debate in a public forum without fear of political persecution. An intergovernmental forum should be opened to facilitate international discussions on AI, and an invitation should be extended to China.
Think tanks and NGOs researching AI norms and ethics should be financed, and value-compatible AI research should be funded, both in China and elsewhere. Such research is notably being produced out of universities in Montreal, San Francisco, and Singapore. Finally, research visits, trips, and exchanges should be organized to facilitate open and free discussions between Western and Chinese AI scientists, thinkers, and entrepreneurs. To kill two birds with one stone, these exchanges and fora could also help to alleviate the growing tensions between our two governing blocs.
The false dichotomy between the “good” of AI and the “bad” of AI is just that; a false dichotomy. We can make technology work towards the improvement of global living standards while disassociating it from the interests and concerns of totalitarian rule, but much work remains to be done before we reach such a point.