China’s AI quest fueled by global data acquisition

The Atlantic has a must read piece, The Panopticon Is Already Here, by Ross Andersen about his trip to China’s Institute of Automation last year, where he met with a top Chinese computer scientist, Xi Zeng, who is involved in developing China’s AI capability.  Andersen explains the Chinese government’s aggressive data-accumulation efforts:

“China uses “predatory lending to sell telecommunications equipment at a significant discount to developing countries, which then puts China in a position to control those networks and their data,” Michael Kratsios, America’s CTO, told me. When countries need to refinance the terms of their loans, China can make network access part of the deal, in the same way that its military secures base rights at foreign ports it finances. “If you give [China] unfettered access to data networks around the world, that could be a serious problem,” Kratsios said.

In 2018, CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou-based start-up spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, inked a deal with the Zimbabwean government to set up a surveillance network. Its terms require Harare to send images of its inhabitants—a rich data set, given that Zimbabwe has absorbed migration flows from all across sub-Saharan Africa—back to CloudWalk’s Chinese offices, allowing the company to fine-tune its software’s ability to recognize dark-skinned faces, which have previously proved tricky for its algorithms.

Having set up beachheads in Asia, Europe, and Africa, China’s AI companies are now pushing into Latin America, a region the Chinese government describes as a “core economic interest.” China financed Ecuador’s $240 million purchase of a surveillance-camera system. Bolivia, too, has bought surveillance equipment with help from a loan from Beijing. Venezuela recently debuted a new national ID-card system that logs citizens’ political affiliations in a database built by ZTE. In a grim irony, for years Chinese companies hawked many of these surveillance products at a security expo in Xinjiang, the home province of the Uighurs.”

There’s a surreal aspect to China’s growing surveillance state, as with so much of the AI development that eludes me, but this 2015 article, What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance?, written by Thomas McMullan, explains a panopticon this way:

“As a work of architecture, the panopticon allows a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether or not they are being watched. As a metaphor, the panopticon was commandeered in the latter half of the 20th century as a way to trace the surveillance tendencies of disciplinarian societies. Is it still a useful way to think about surveillance in an age of NSA and GCHQ?

The basic setup of Bentham’s panopticon is this: there is a central tower surrounded by cells. In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners – or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation.”

McMullan wrote about Bentham’s idea from the 1780s:

“Bentham never saw a panopticon built during his lifetime. A number of prisons have since incorporated panopticon elements into their design but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the closest thing to a panopticon prison was built – the Presidio Modelo complex in Cuba, infamous for corruption and cruelty, now abandoned.””

The Chinese have embraced the panopticon concept by trying to build a surveillance state that can track a billion citizens’ movements, interactions, daily habits, and even control their behavior through digital monitoring, intervention and “reeducation”efforts.

Many Americans, myself included, have a naive and unsophisticated understanding of digital activities and assuredly AI, which seems like something out of a science fiction novel, rather than a reality.  As I was reading the Andersen piece, I had to stop several times to try and absorb the information and make sense of it, as all of these massive surveillance state ideas run diametrically opposed to my views on personal liberty and personal privacy.

Very scary times ahead with AI seem to be much closer than most of us realize.

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