AI in China: Discipline and Punish
1 octobre 2019
The craze for artificial intelligence is not weakening. On the contrary, states around the world rely on this repertoire of techniques to find their place in the new international order to come. Among them, China is undoubtedly the most spectacular example. The Chinese were initially troubled by the provocative success of the IA AlphaGo system, developed by Deepmind (Google’s UK subsidiary), against the best go players in the world, a game that is eminently complex and symbolically linked to the glorious past of the country. Nevertheless, the State and, along with it, the Chinese Communist Party have decided to embark on a vast plan for the development of AI. This was in 2017: the Council of State Affairs (the main civil administrative organism of the People’s Republic) unveiled a strategy with a huge budget: 20 billion dollars a year, then 59 billion by 2025 (against 375 million euros for France). With a clear goal: to make China the undisputed leader in the field by 2030.
This fascination with AI, of course, has a geopolitical cause: the United States has dominated this field of research since its origins in the 1950s; China intends to rely on these technologies to defeat the Americans as the world’s leading power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic. Moreover, the AI is a formidable (formidabilis = terrible) tool of social regulation and control particularly valuable in a country worked by secessionist (Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang) and insurrectional temptations; this year we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests.
Among the systems put in place, the « social credit system » is undoubtedly the most famous. It aims to evaluate, by giving them a score, all Chinese – but also foreign – citizens and companies according to their attitude examined over the continuous analysis of their data. With a starting capital of a thousand points, citizens and companies see their personal note grow or decline according to whether their actions correspond or not to the common morality enacted by the Party-State, and according to the level of confidence that the latter can grant. The result is a classification that determines certain rights and rewards or, conversely, penalties: administrative and medical facilities or restrictions, access or not to certain public jobs, right or prohibition to buy a plane ticket, among other examples.
For the moment, there is no single social credit system covering the entire country, although the central government sets this goal for next year. It is more of a myriad of local initiatives (43 municipalities have initiated to date a system of this nature, systematically associated with a smart city project), whose type of assessment and regime of rewards and penalties varies marginally.
The ambition to evaluate the totality of the individual behaviors is however only possible with the assistance of AI techniques, which analyze the data collected by different mediums (social networks, « smart » cameras, connected objects…) to transform them into information (legal and biometric identity, behavior, social network…). On the backdrop of the moralization of citizens and companies, this system refers to a « political technology of the bodies », a « microphysics of power », to use the words of Michel Foucault: the surveillance and the control of the bodies prelude to the reform of the minds. Helped by the big digital firms (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei …), the Party-State intends to make these devices more « flexible » and horizontal, by delegating to the society itself its control power, by the growing interconnectedness of individuals through new technologies: through their smartphone, everyone becomes not only the watchdog of their peers, but it is also the basic building block of a generalized and self-regulating surveillance system.
But China has bigger ambitions yet. Foreign companies are also covered by this apparatus, and the government is seeking to export its control instruments around the world. 63 countries have already signed partnerships with Chinese companies to provide these technologies. Huawei alone provides artificial intelligence-based surveillance technologies to more than fifty states (including Italy), aided by the Belt and Road Initiative. Algeria has adopted, among other things, face recognition systems designed by the firm of Shenzhen. At a time when states are vying to be the most vigorous to strengthen their security arsenals, China’s technological power is tempting the avarice of the political powers. Huawei has already managed to convince several European countries to deploy its 5G equipment by ignoring US threats. One unknown factor remains: as quite recently Palantir with the DGSI (the domestic intelligence services), will Chinese companies make themselves indispensable to the police and intelligence services of Western democracies, and at what price?