Interview. We spoke with Oxford University’s Jeffrey Ding about the AI arms race and what smart machines would mean in a country dominated by totalitarian rule.

China enters the artificial intelligence race

The Chinese race toward Big Data and artificial intelligence seems more and more like a full-fledged “campaign,” similar to the others that the Communist Party has launched over the years, aiming at a wide range of goals, from “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to the one-child policy, all the way to the more recent “Chinese dream” put forward by President Xi Jinping. In such campaigns, the objectives are not only officially set out, but end up becoming a constant presence in all the areas of social life in the country, through banners in the cities, initiatives, events and a series of recommendations—set out in official form through Communist Party documents—which then become full-fledged “rules” with effect on the social sphere of the country.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that soon after Xi explicitly referred to artificial intelligence for the first time, in a working group organized on the occasion of the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party a month ago, the news came a few days later that, starting this year, AI will become a school subject taught in both middle and high schools. Earlier, Chinese media had reported that drones equipped with “smart cameras” would be installed in a number of schools, able to constantly monitor the students and study their behavior during classes.

The AI race will end up involving the entire population. The Chinese leadership is trying to optimize investment, education and training in order to render the objective set by the party leadership more attainable: namely, that of closing the technological gap and catching up to the United States by 2020, and becoming the first global power in artificial intelligence by 2030.

Of course, this process should not be viewed merely in terms of its explicit goals and its immediate impacts of an economic and technological nature. While it is true that China is aiming to develop AI to improve its manufacturing, medicine, space research, and more generally the Internet of Things, it is equally clear that this approach should also be viewed from the perspective of all the tools that AI could offer the single ruling party of a country, in terms of social control and “maintaining stability” (the true mantra of the Chinese leadership since Deng Xiaoping).

One should recall that China’s history has been consistently marked (despite the many differences that emerged in the imperial period between the various dynasties) by more or less veiled attempts to regiment society through widespread control, which was, in some cases, explicitly “militarized.” In this regard, we find an example in the Cultural Revolution not long ago—but that is not the only one. As Kai Vogelsang wrote in his valuable book Cina, una storia millenaria (“China: A History Spanning Millennia,” in the original German “Geschichte Chinas,” published in Italian by Einaudi, 2014, 632 pages, €35), one of the best works on the extraordinary history of the country: “Even in daily life, the Qin society was organized in a fully military manner. All the inhabitants were divided into groups of five or 10 families, who were working together and controlled each other. Thus, a vigorous surveillance system was born, in which all were subject to the obligation of denouncing others and to collective responsibility.” This system was designed by Shang Yang, who earlier had convinced everyone to make “legalism” the guiding principle of the empire. Later, he was himself accused of plotting a rebellion and ended up drawn and quartered.

We spoke to Jeffrey Ding, a researcher at the University of Oxford, on the securitarian trends in the country, and more generally on the Chinese AI campaign. Often quoted by international media such as The Washington Post, the South China Morning Post and the MIT Technology Review, he published in March 2018 a report entitled “Deciphering China’s AI Dream: The context, components, capabilities, and consequences of China’s strategy to lead the world in AI,” in which he analyzed the current situation and the trends in terms of technology, Big Data and, of course, artificial intelligence. In addition, he is the editor of a newsletter that is an essential resource for anyone interested in China and artificial intelligence.

What do you think are China’s main objectives when it comes to artificial intelligence?

Their objectives include the need to build up economic competitiveness and military security. The best analysts of this process have pointed to artificial intelligence as a technology that could deliver a decisive strategic advantage in the field of international security. Some have speculated that the development of artificial intelligence could bring about a revolution in the military sector, changing the nature of war and of military competition. It could have similar impacts in the economic sphere, since it is a field of technology that could alter production processes in a wide range of industries.

Do you believe that the gap between China and the US could narrow?

I think the United States is quite far ahead in terms of the development of artificial intelligence. In my report, I develop a so-called AI Potential index: according to this indicator, the United States has 33 percent of the worldwide potential for artificial intelligence, while China is second with 17 percent. As for the long term, that is too hard to predict, because the various driving factors (hardware, data, research and development talent and the commercial ecosystem) that are feeding the development of artificial intelligence are rapidly transforming, and what is true today might not hold true in the future. For example, progress in the creation of synthetic data and data simulation may lessen the importance of having access to large and well-structured data sets.

What are the prominent AI startups (and entrepreneurs) that are having the greatest effect on daily life in China today?

Many startups, like Sensetime, are working on key technologies that ordinary users do not encounter much in their daily lives. It is other companies, such as Baidu, which have adapted AI technologies into products (e.g. intelligent speakers), that have closer ties to everyday life in China.

Based on your studies and research, are you concerned about the Chinese involvement in this sector and the potential forms of social surveillance that may result?

Yes, I am concerned. There are various types of risks that artificial intelligence technologies may enable more efficient censorship and “vigilance.”

One can also class the so-called Chinese social credit system within the field of Big Data and artificial intelligence. It is no coincidence that one of the sections of your report bears the title “Implications of AI for China’s mode of social governance.” How would you describe this “plan” to a Western audience? Are we looking at the emergence of Big Brother, or just the return of Confucius?

The Chinese social credit system may be characterized as an effort by the Chinese government to increase trust within society by monitoring the activities of citizens. In practice, however, there is no unified national system at this time, but rather a disjointed network of systems, which also include some that are very similar to financial credit score evaluation models. However, there is a risk that progress in artificial intelligence may lead to mass surveillance.

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