Engineering Ethics Blog: 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

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

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.

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