China’s Authoritarian Vision for its Fast-Growing AI Industry
Artificial intelligence’s potential is being realized by nearly every country on earth. Large nations like the United States and China are racing to modernize by improving industry efficiency and profitability, with each country wanting to hold the key to the future. China’s President Xi Jinping has promised that China will be the global leader in artificial intelligence by 2030, capitalizing on a $150 billion domestic industry. As stated in an article by Clay Chandler entitled “Why China has an Edge in the AI arms race,” “A.I. is shifting from a U.S.-led age of discovery to an age of implementation in which China enjoys significant structural advantages. The main drivers? Data, computing power, and competent engineers—all of which favor the world’s most populous nation.”
Tencent, China’s biggest social network, is at the forefront of China’s artificial intelligence ambitions. Boasting more than one billion users on its popular app WeChat and a higher valuation than Facebook, Tencent has made a push into AI R&D (research and development) over the past few years. Its YouTu Lab in Shenzhen and another lab in Bellevue, Washington have been leaders in machine learning after developing many techniques for facial, image, and speech recognition. Tencent is also the leading AI investor of American companies in China. Hoping to realize AI’s multi-industry impact, Tencent has recently made a push into healthcare. Customers can use WeChat to pay in 2,000 hospitals and to book appointments in 25,000, giving WeChat access to plenty of consumer data which allows it to improve its algorithms. The company has also invested in a variety of healthcare companies including iCarbonX, which hopes to perfect personalized medicine. With numerous investments into R&D and intriguing AI startups, Tencent exemplifies China’s hopes of dominating the development and integration of AI into daily life.
In recent years, the Chinese government has started to implement its growing AI capabilities into their vision for the nation. Unlike the U.S., which highly values democracy and individual liberties, China has always been an authoritarian state. From the ancient dynasties to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to President Xi’s abolishment of term limits, Chinese leaders have enjoyed far more power and control than U.S. presidents. Accordingly, the Chinese government is now using AI to strengthen its influence.
China employs facial recognition technology to keep track of its 1.4 billion people. Around 200 million surveillance cameras have been placed all across the country and are able to recognize people even if they are wearing light makeup, a hat, or glasses. This technology recently allowed police to capture a thief at a concert. Street cameras can identify jaywalkers and, in some cities, even display the person on a large board, publicly shaming them. People aren’t just using the cameras to capture criminals; in the city of Hangzhou, teachers use the technology to track student’s attentiveness in real-time. For instance, if a student were to start daydreaming, the monitor would alert the teacher.
This use of AI has positive implications—it’s use by teachers can improve students’ attentiveness, for example—but also sets dangerous precedents that intrude on personal privacy. It seems obvious that any person would feel uncomfortable being tracked by anyone else. Even recently, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have faced controversy for allowing a third-party firm, Cambridge Analytica, to gain access to consumer data, and Apple had to face a legal battle with the FBI over creating a backdoor into the iPhone in order to see view a criminal’s information. However, the debate of national security or privacy has been present in the U.S., but not China. The latter has offered a one-sided view that disregards privacy and freedoms in favor of national security. As stated in the New York Times article “Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: AI, Shame, and Lots of Cameras” written by Paul Mozur, “China is reversing the commonly held vision of technology as a great democratizer, bringing people more freedom and connecting them to the world. In China, it has brought control.” Naturally, Americans have grown accustomed to the freedoms guaranteed by their Constitution and praised in their society. On the other hand, the majority of Chinese people accept the strong and authoritarian leadership that has defined their country for millennia. The two vastly different systems of government lead to different ways of life, and thus different uses for AI.
This isn’t to say Chinese industries won’t reap the benefits of AI—a McKinsey study report estimates that full utilization AI would bring an additional 1.4 percentage points of annual growth for China’s GDP—but AI’s potential goes far beyond the economy. In the future, AI will be used to strengthen a nation’s moral and political values: freedom in the U.S. and control in China.
Written by Rebellion Team & Edited by Alexander Fleiss