AI’s China Problem

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

AI is increasingly looking like the demented HAL 9000 rather than the Star Trek computer. We can thank China for that.

China has seized on AI as a tool of control. The latest reporting by the New York Times indicates officials have deployed facial recognition specifically designed to profile, track, and control Muslim minorities.

This is different, but related to the threat that China might split the internet. That too is a battle with geopolitical implications, but this one is a greater threat to democracies including our own. China’s embrace of authoritarian technology means we might face those same technologies on our shores. Once a technology is created, it becomes easier to deploy it anywhere. While the first to copy China’s example will be other wealthy autocracies like Russia, Saudi Arabia, those products will become available to any buyer.

What happens when a Sheriff Arpaio type can buy these technologies?

The New Code War

In some ways, this is the inverse of the soft power the US and Europe have enjoyed by creating microcomputers, software, and the internet. Those technologies had ideologies baked into their creation by their libertarian skewing creators. Commenting on a recent Chinese technology trade show, a reporter noted, “If Silicon Valley is marked by a libertarian streak, China’s vision offers something of an antithesis, one where tech is meant to reinforce and be guided by the steady hand of the state.”

We have nothing less than a new war of ideology being fought over the future of technology. Instead of communism v. democracy, this new battle seems to be just a straight up authoritarianism v. liberalism. And the battlefield is code.

The Cold War was a geo-political contest of two countries with different ideologies under threat of a hot nuclear war. This war is about the future of code. We face the threat that our own system of capitalism will undermine our liberal democracies.

Perhaps this is the “new Code War” rather than the “Cold War.” I sense this battle will define our lives for the next many decades.

The New Code War frames a choice. We can seek to build AI and software that is like the computer from Star Trek, a smart assistant to humans that fulfills the vision of liberal democracies. Or we can allow the spread of a demented technology like HAL 9000 that is determined to follow the will of its master, no matter the dissent from mere humans.