An artificial intelligence (AI) institute in Hefei, in China’s Anhui province, says it has developed software that can gauge the loyalty of Communist Party members – something that, if true, would be considered a breakthrough, but has sparked public outcry.
Analysts said China has improved its AI-powered surveillance, using big data, machine learning, facial recognition and AI to “get into the brains and minds of its people,” building what many call a draconian digital dictatorship.
Smart thought education?
The institute posted a video called “The Smart Political Education Bar,” on July 1 to boast about its “mind-reading” software, which it said would be used on party members to “further solidify their determination to be grateful to the party, listen to the party and follow the party.”
In the video, a subject was seen scrolling through online material that promotes party policy at a kiosk, where the institute said its AI software was monitoring his reaction to see how attentive he was to the party’s thought education.
The post, however, was taken down shortly after sparking a public outcry among Chinese netizens.
Hung Ching-fu, a professor of political science at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, in southern Taiwan, said that the Communist Party has abused technological advances to serve its own political interests.
“It has used cutting-edge technology to empower its party state. China has upgraded from early-day facial recognition to AI programs that try to get into brains and minds (more) than meet the eye. Its adoption of advanced AI will reinforce its total controls,” Hung told VOA over the phone.
Hung added China’s AI-fueled police state will weigh on its people, who are likely to self-censor or live in fear.
But he cast little confidence in what he called China’s digital repression, which he said will likely put the Communist Party in the “dictator’s dilemma” – a political term that describes a government leader’s failure to win the hearts and minds of its people.
“The taller you build your wall [of power], the further you’re cut off from the people… This constitutes what we call the ‘dictator’s dilemma’ in politics. That is, despite their enormous powers, dictators keep out of touch with the people. I don’t think any political systems that are against human nature will sustain,” Hung added.
VOA’s calls and emails to the Hefei-based institute for comment went unanswered.
The so-called mind-reading software is but the latest digital control China has implemented.
China reportedly has long deployed facial recognition in Xinjiang to keep tabs on ethnic Uyghurs while having enhanced its surveillance in recent years with “one person, one file” software to make it easier to track its people.
Late last year, authorities in Henan province reportedly launched a similar system to track what they see as “suspicious” journalists, foreign students and women. At the same time, prosecutors in Shanghai reportedly adopted AI prosecutors, who can file indictments on eight criminal offenses, including credit card fraud and charges of picking a quarrel and provoking trouble.
Chinese online newspaper The Paper reported that a Communist Party school in Sichuan had developed “Smart Red Cloud” as early as 2017, which was already able to monitor party member reaction to its political education and “calculate” their loyalty.
Victims of China’s surveillance system
Several rights lawyers and activists told VOA on the condition of anonymity that they fell victim to China’s digital surveillance system.
A rights activist from Wuhan, Hebei, said he was once taken away by police who were able to identify him after a roadside camera captured his face while he was on the street.
A Beijing-based rights lawyer complained that he was unable to post online messages or make an online registration as a result of China’s tight censorship and digital tracking system.
Another rights lawyer revealed that China’s police have been illegally collecting biometric data from the pupils of people’s eyes, fingerprints and urine samples of those in its custody to enhance what he called a “precise but evil” surveillance.
China’s widespread application of AI technologies, however, is stimulating the sector’s innovation, according to the findings of recent research by author Martin Beraja, an assistant professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and three other scholars at Harvard University and The London School of Economics and Political Science.
Their research concluded, while new technology bolsters autocratic power and autocratic demand stimulates innovation, “this mutuality of advantage may even generate long-term, sustained AI innovation in China, creating what they call an ‘AI-tocracy.’”
“In the process of procuring that government contract, they [AI firms in China] get access to this data that allows them, of course, to innovate for the government application that has to do typically with public security or preventing crime, or the like. This has spilled over to their commercial innovation, because, potentially, they may use either the same government data or, if that’s restricted, they may use the same algorithms that were trained with that data to develop commercial products that are used in the private sector,” Beraja told VOA.
One such commercial software, for example, is used in supermarkets to track consumers as they move along the aisles, the professor added.
Beraja, however, expressed concerned over China’s AI exports, which he found in his research are likely aiding other repressive governments.
“One thing that we do observe is that the countries that are more autocratic or relatively weak democracies are indeed importing more facial recognition AI from China, more likely facial recognition AI from China than other technologies. And to me that says that there is a sense in which these technologies indeed are used for surveillance and repression,” Beraja added.
Zola, a prominent blogger from China who is now a citizen of Taiwan, said that most netizens in China oppose the country’s digital suppression although their opposition is often muted.
He questioned the sustainability of China’s AI-tocracy.
“China may be exporting these technologies to other countries. But in the long run, such a governance model will lead a society to go to extremes…repeating the irrational policymaking pattern during the (China’s) Cultural Revolution period. That will lead to its own collapse,” Zola told VOA.
This article originated in VOA’s Mandarin service.