We Need to Be Smart About How Government Uses AI

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One of the big misconceptions is that AI is a future technology, akin to humanoid robots that appear in television shows and movies. But AI is not a speculative technology—it already has many real-world applications, and ordinary people rely on it in one form or another every day.

AI already powers many common mobile apps and programs. In fact, iPhones, Amazon’s Alexa, Twitter and Facebook feeds, Google’s search engine, and Netflix movie queues—to name just a few examples—all rely on AI.

That said, there is a vast gap between the complexity of AI processing needed for the complex geospatial functions performed by self-driving cars versus, say, the basic AI algorithms used for more routine tasks like filtering spam emails.


Technologist Melvin Kranzberg famously stated, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” AI technology follows this principle. It’s dual-use, meaning that it performs a range of functions, including both military and peaceful ones.

For example, AI is being used to spot pathogens in blood samples and to analyze MRI scans for cancer. These algorithms can work more quickly and accurately than their human counterparts, allowing for rapid monitoring and identification of malignant cells

But AI can also be channeled maliciously and destructively. For one thing, AI’s surveillance capability offers startling new ways for authoritarian and illiberal states to monitor and control their citizens.

China has been one of the frontrunners in exploiting this technology for surveillance purposes. For example, in Xinjiang and Tibet, China is using AI-powered technology to combine multiple streams of information—including individual DNA samples, online chat history, social media posts, medical records, and bank account information—to observe every aspect of individuals’ lives.

But China is not just using AI to manage restive populations in far-flung provinces. Beijing is also rolling out what it calls “social credit scores” into mainstream society. These scores use big data derived from public records, private technology platforms, and a host of other sources to monitor, shape, and rate individuals’ behavior as part of a broader system of political control.

Second, AI can manipulate existing information in the public domain to rapidly spread disinformation. Social media platforms use content curation algorithms to drive users toward certain articles, in order to influence their behavior (and keep users addicted to their social media feeds). Authoritarian regimes can exploit such algorithms too. One way they can do so is by hiring bot and troll armies to push out pro-regime messaging.

Beyond that, AI can help identify key social-media influencers, whom the authorities can then coopt into spreading disinformation among their online followers. Emerging AI technology can also make it easier to push out automated, hyperpersonalized disinformation campaigns via social media—targeted at specific people or groups—much along the lines of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, or Saudi troll armies targeting dissidents such as recently murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Finally, AI technology is increasingly able to produce realistic video and audio forgeries, known as deep fakes. These have the potential to undermine our basic ability to judge truth from fiction. In a hard-fought election, for example, an incumbent could spread doctored videos falsely showing opponents making inflammatory remarks or engaging in vile acts.


Several countries are spending a lot of money to beef up their AI capabilities. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron announced in March 2018 that France would invest $1.8 billion in its AI sector to compete with China and the United States. Likewise, Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere [AI] will become the ruler of the world,” implying a hefty Russian investment in developing this technology as well. Other countries like South Korea have also made big AI investment pledges.

But the world leaders in AI are the United States and China. For Beijing, AI is an essential part of a broader system of domestic political control. China wants to be the world leader in AI by 2030, and has committed to spending $150 billion to achieve global dominance in the field.


There are three central components of AI—training data for machine learning, strong algorithms, and computing power.

Of those three, China has training data in abundance and an improving repertoire of algorithms. But the country’s ability to manufacture advanced computer chips—and tap the computing power they supply—lags behind U.S. capabilities.

By contrast, the United States has the world’s most advanced microchips and most sophisticated algorithms. Yet Americans increasingly trail behind their Chinese counterparts when it comes to the sheer amount of digital data available to AI companies. This is because Chinese companies can access the data of over one billion domestic users with almost non-existent privacy controls. And data increasingly makes all the difference when it comes to building AI companies that can outperform competitors, the reason being that large datasets help algorithms produce increasingly accurate results and predictions.


China sees technology as a way to achieve its grand strategic aims. Part of this strategy involves spreading AI technology to support authoritarianism overseas. The Chinese are aggressively trying to develop their own AI, which they can then vigorously peddle abroad.

As China develops its AI sector, it is promoting a digital silk road (as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which involves Chinese investment in other countries’ infrastructure) to spread sophisticated technology to governments worldwide.

These efforts include plans to construct a network of “smart” or “safe” cities in countries such as Pakistan and Kenya. These cities have extensive monitoring technology built directly into their infrastructure.

In Latin America, China has sold AI and facial recognition software to Ecuadorian, Bolivian, and Peruvian authorities to enhance public surveillance.

Likewise, in Singapore, China is providing 110,000 surveillance cameras fitted with facial recognition technology. These cameras will be placed on all of Singapore’s public lampposts to perform crowd analytics and assist with anti-terrorism operations.

Similarly, China is supplying Zimbabwe with facial recognition technology for its state security services and is building a national image database.

Additionally, China has entered into a partnership with Malaysian police forces to equip officers with facial recognition technology. This would allow security officials to compare instantly live images captured by body-cameras with images stored in a central database.

Read the source post at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.