Blog: How artificial intelligence systems could threaten democracy – GCN.com
How artificial intelligence systems could threaten democracy
- By Steven Feldstein
- Apr 24, 2019
U.S. technology giant Microsoft has teamed up with a Chinese military university to develop artificial intelligence systems that could potentially enhance government surveillance and censorship capabilities. Two U.S. senators publicly condemned the partnership, but what the National Defense Technology University of China wants from Microsoft isn’t the only concern.
As my research shows, the advent of digital repression is profoundly affecting the relationship between citizen and state. New technologies are arming governments with unprecedented capabilities to monitor, track and surveil individual people. Even governments in democracies with strong traditions of rule of law find themselves tempted to abuse these new abilities.
In states with unaccountable institutions and frequent human rights abuses, AI systems will most likely cause greater damage. China is a prominent example. Its leadership has enthusiastically embraced AI technologies, and has set up the world’s most sophisticated surveillance state in Xinjiang province, tracking citizens’ daily movements and smartphone use.
Its exploitation of these technologies presents a chilling model for fellow autocrats and poses a direct threat to open democratic societies. Although there’s no evidence that other governments have replicated this level of AI surveillance, Chinese companies are actively exporting the same underlying technologies across the world.
Increasing reliance on AI tools in the U.S.
Artificial intelligence systems are everywhere in the modern world, helping run smartphones, internet search engines, digital voice assistants and Netflix movie queues. Many people fail to realize how quickly AI is expanding, thanks to ever-increasing amounts of data to be analyzed, improving algorithms and advanced computer chips.
Any time more information becomes available and analysis gets easier, governments are interested — and not just authoritarian ones. In the U.S., for instance, the 1970s saw revelations that government agencies — such as the FBI, CIA and NSA — had set up expansive domestic surveillance networks to monitor and harass civil rights protesters, political activists and Native American groups. These issues haven’t gone away: Digital technology today has deepened the ability of even more agencies to conduct even more intrusive surveillance.
For example, U.S. police have eagerly embraced AI technologies. They have begun using software that is meant to predict where crimes will happen to decide where to send officers on patrol. They’re also using facial recognition and DNA analysis in criminal investigations. But analyses of these systems show the data on which those systems are trained are often biased, leading to unfair outcomes, such as falsely determining that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes than other groups.
AI surveillance around the world
In authoritarian countries, AI systems can directly abet domestic control and surveillance, helping internal security forces process massive amounts of information – including social media posts, text messages, emails and phone calls — more quickly and efficiently. The police can identify social trends and specific people who might threaten the regime based on the information uncovered by these systems.