Big data, AI and China: the good, the bad and the ugly

china big data AI
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Chinese president Xi Jinping stated in his opening address at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that digital technologies like big data and AI will play a key role in the county’s next big advance.

He was speaking mainly in terms of economic development – but it’s no secret he also sees them as tools for mass surveillance and control.

In his three-and-a-half hour speech, reports the South China Morning Post, President Xi made a passing reference to the role of technology in China’s march towards the “new era” of “modern socialism”:

“We need to speed up building China into a strong country with advanced manufacturing, pushing for deep integration between the real economy and advanced technologies including internet, big data, and artificial intelligence.”

This isn’t news in and of itself. July, China’s State Council said it aims to develop a $150 billion domestic AI industry over the next few years, and to make China the world’s go-to hub for AI innovation by 2030. Last year, premier Li Keqiang said at an industry conference that big data would be a key technology for digitally transforming and optimizing government departments.

Still, the fact that President Xi took the time to mention them specifically underlined the importance of those efforts to China’s Grand Plan.

According to the SCMP, that’s good news for Chinese tech entrepreneurs like Rona Jiang, whose start-up company is trying to develop a cloud-based “on-demand” model for manufacturing shirts:

“We feel our start-up is on the right track, heading in the right direction, despite facing plenty of challenges,” she said.

However, there’s little doubt that the Chinese government also wants to use big data, AI and other technologies to gain greater control over its domestic internet and the people who use it.

While President Xi didn’t say so specifically, he did say that China will build a “clean and clear” internet space, according to Reuters.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or a paranoid mindset to figure out what that means, what he wants the internet space to be clean and clear of, and how big data and AI could help with that endeavor. In the run-up to this week’s party congress, the Chinese government has launched numerous crackdowns on VPN providers and domestic social media sites, making it absolutely clear that it will not put up with anyone posting anything out of step with the CCCP’s big vision, or anything that questions it in any way whatsoever.

China also aims to harness the power of big data to create “social credit scores” for individuals and businesses – partly as a financial tool but mainly as a reputation rating that would include not only their financial credit status but also their social media activity and personal behavior.

Another Reuters report notes that it’s not just about censoring online content – big data and AI can also help the Chinese government with surveillance and tracking:

As tens of thousands of Chinese drinkers walked into a beer festival in the eastern port city of Qingdao in August, a software program scanned their pictures. Those identified as being on a police list of wanted persons were pinpointed in less than a second. By the end of the three-week event, authorities had made 25 arrests, including one of someone on the run for a decade. According to police, the program had correctly matched faces in 98 percent of cases.

None of this is surprising, of course. This is what China does. But it’s also what some other countries do, though perhaps few do it as well or as thoroughly. And even in countries where governments don’t do it, there are plenty of politicians in those countries who would do it in a second if they thought they could get around whatever legal or constitutional safeguards preventing them from doing so. The current trend towards authoritarianism in some of those countries suggests they may get that chance in, say, 20 to 30 years.

There are also cybersecurity implications to this – imagine big data and AI tech applied to cyber espionage and warfare. Won’t that be fun?

That’s why it’s worth watching where China goes with this. Remember that between its domestic policies, its “Belt And Road” initiative and its backing of new free trade agreements like RCEP, China is slowly building itself up to be the main economic superpower in the world – or at least the only one that matters. China won’t just be the go-to innovation center for AI and big data – it could also serve as a proof of concept for using those technologies to secure political power indefinitely.

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