Artificial intelligence will sharpen the East-West divide


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Technology is not a neutral tool. Its use is infused with the cultural ethos of those who deploy it.

Digital connectivity may have been conceived in the algorithmic imagination of Silicon Valley libertarians as a way to free the individual from institutions. But in the hands of China’s institutional civilization, shaped for millennia by a communitarian and authoritarian mindset, it further empowers the state.

The marriage of big data with the analytic capacities of intelligent machines has spawned twin big brothers: surveillance capitalism in the West and a monitory mandarinate in China. Neither fit within the original libertarian vision. Both invade privacy by tracking personal information, for social control in the East and for profit in the West.

This divergent use of technology will widen as artificial intelligence expands and penetrates all aspects of society, from the Internet of Things to gene editing. How East and West seek to guide that development will also differ markedly. And of course, crossover is not insignificant. Chinese companies Alibaba and Tencent make a pretty penny off of their online users’ data; American intelligence agencies, as Edward Snowden revealed, are no strangers to poking into the lives of others.

In The WorldPost this week, we examine prospective approaches to this rapidly oncoming challenge.

It turns out that the British House of Lords — which has been reformed in recent years to become a meritocratic adjunct to an elected House of Commons instead of a club for hereditary peers — has made one of the most important contributions so far to thinking about the future of AI and society. After six months of hearings and investigations, it has just released a comprehensive report that calls for a global charter to govern the digital age.

Anthony Giddens, a prominent sociologist and former director of the London School of Economics who sat on the committee, writes: “In 1215, England adopted the Magna Carta to stop kings from abusing their power. Today, the new kings are big tech companies, and just like centuries ago, we need a charter to govern them.”

The proposed charter lays out the main principles that should determine the development of AI both at the national and international level. As Giddens relays it, AI should:

  • Be developed for the common good.
  • Operate on principles of intelligibility and fairness: users must be able to easily understand the terms under which their personal data will be used.
  • Respect rights to privacy.
  • Be grounded in far-reaching changes to education. Teaching needs reform to utilize digital resources, and students must learn not only digital skills but also how to develop a critical perspective online.
  • Never be given the autonomous power to hurt, destroy or deceive human beings.

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman discusses the utopian and dystopian possibilities of AI in this short video interview.

In China, the party-state seems far more likely to take control of AI directly rather than follow the Western, rule-of-law approach that would seek to bind private development through ethical principles.

Feng Xiang is a well-known and widely respected legal scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Though he does not represent any official view, his way of thinking about AI in the context of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” certainly draws from the “sinicized Marxism” that informs the perspective of party ideologists.

In a provocative essay, he argues that AI should be nationalized. “For the sake of social well-being and security, individuals and private companies should not be allowed to possess any exclusive cutting-edge technology or core AI platforms. Like nuclear and biochemical weapons, as long as they exist, nothing other than a strong and stable state can ensure society’s safety.”

Looking into the future, Feng returns to the red ambitions of the past, which he now sees as achievable thanks to AI. “The dream of communism is the elimination of wage labor. If AI is bound to serve society instead of private capitalists, it promises to do so by freeing an overwhelming majority from such drudgery while creating wealth to sustain all.

If the state controls the market, instead of digital capitalism controlling the state, true communist aspirations will be achievable. And because AI increasingly enables the management of complex systems by processing massive amounts of information through intensive feedback loops, it presents, for the first time, a real alternative to the market signals that have long justified laissez-faire ideology — and all the ills that go with it.

Going forward, China’s socialist market economy, which aims to harness the fruits of production for the whole population and not just a sliver of elites operating in their own self-centered interests, can lead the way toward this new stage of human development.”

Feng concludes: “If properly regulated in this way, we should celebrate, not fear, the advent of AI. If it is brought under social control, it will finally free workers from peddling their time and sweat only to enrich those at the top. The communism of the future ought to adopt a new slogan: ‘Robots of the world, unite!’”

Bing Song takes a softer approach, though along the same continuum as Feng. “The private ownership of data, which is the basis for the current data privacy protection scheme, requires a rethink,” she writes from Beijing. “Personal data once shared on platforms should no longer be viewed as the unencumbered private property of individuals or platforms. Instead, the data in circulation should be viewed as a public good, and data aggregators should become custodians of the public good.”

While most attention has focused on how the party-state will use big data to engage in surveillance from above, Bing sees the potential of a two-way street in which citizens will be able to monitor the government from below. “In 2015, the Chinese government issued an action plan for fostering an open data society and developing a big data industry,” she reports. “The plan sets out detailed goals: by 2020, government data is due to open to the public in 20 or more civil welfare and benefits-related areas such as credit, transportation, employment, social security, culture and natural resources.”

Why Kim Jong Un will give up his nukes

While virtually every analyst of the North Korean crisis believes Kim Jong Un will not give up his nukes, Spencer Kim is convinced he will. As he writes from Seoul, “Kim, who has god-like status among his people, has in effect told North Koreans four things:

  • The nukes program has served its purpose, and we will stop work on it now.
  • All efforts will focus on making you rich, like the Chinese and South Koreans.
  • I have started a new era of Korean history by reaching out to the South.
  • Our nukes have tamed the Yankees, and now I am going to trade them for permanent security and leverage to make you rich.

The North Korean leader, argues the author, cannot now say, ‘Oops, I misread the situation — let’s go back to being poor but proud with nukes!’ He has mounted a tiger and cannot get off without being eaten. He must ride it all the way to his destination.”

Is Trump trading away human rights in China?

Chen Guangcheng is the famous blind human rights lawyer who escaped house arrest in 2012 and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and later to exile in the United States. He appeals to President Donald Trump not to forsake human rights in his trade negotiations with China.

“The United States should use the threat of a trade war to push China to adopt political change and institute a strong rule-of-law system based on human rights,” he pleads. “Universal values should be upheld as we bravely say no to the repressive regimes of the world. That is what will make America great again.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.