Experts are warning of the threat posed by China’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) to develop a survellience state, and say the risk of such authoritarian behaviour spreading to other parts of the world is increasing.
- A professor of cyber security says China is researching AI to “enhance the control of its population”
- Professor Greg Austin says key world governments are keen to follow China’s lead
- Other experts warn the world needs to regulate AI in warfare
While Chinese technology company Huawei is making daily headlines at the moment, Greg Austin, professor of cyber security, strategy and diplomacy at the University of New South Wales, said there were more pressing concerns.
“If I were asked which was the bigger threat from China to the West, is it Huawei or is it their research on artificial intelligence I would say it’s their research on artificial intelligence,” Professor Austin said.
“That far outranks any of the concerns that we have from what Huawei might do in terms of foreign espionage.”
Huawei has been banned from taking part in the rollout of 5G mobile technology in Australia over national security concerns and has faced similar restrictions in other countries.
The company has also been accused by the US of bank and wire fraud and conspiring to steal trade secrets, while its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada last year and faces extradition to the US.
Western governments fear Huawei is not separated from some of the Chinese security apparatus and that its equipment could be used for spying.
Professor Austin said while there were clearly risks associated with Huawei, more focus needed to be on the motive Beijing had for technology development in other areas.
“China’s intention with artificial intelligence, it’s primary purpose at the government level of being a world-leader in artificial intelligence, is to enhance the control of its population,” he said.
“And to enhance its capabilities for surveillance of the population … and that must be our biggest concern with China.”
China observers point to the country’s far western Xinjiang province as a prominent example of the survellience state in action.
Reports say ethnic Muslim-minority Uyghurs face strict surveillance in Xinjiang and the UN has cited estimates that up to 1 million of them may be held involuntarily in extra-legal detention.
The ABC has also detailed how China is implementing a “social credit” system for its citizens, drawing on AI technology such as facial recognition.
Beijing says surveillance in Xinjiang is for security and stability in a region that has experienced unrest, and that the social credit system is to help build trust.
Dangers behind China’s ‘laughable’ bid to become AI leader
China has been investing heavily in AI — generally referred to as the development of computer systems that can perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence — in recent years and research by its institutions in the field has surged.
Beijing has the advantage of huge amounts of data on its citizens — AI loves data, the more it has the smarter it becomes — but it is widely acknowledged China is well behind in other key areas, like talent and hardware.
The country announced grand plans in a 2017 national blueprint to address its shortcomings, aiming to become the world’s leader in artificial intelligence by 2030.
Despite that being a “laughable proposition”, Professor Austin said there were flow-on effects of its huge investments in the industry.
“What China is doing domestically in terms of developing the surveillance state is a serious threat to the world,” he said.
“What’s equally alarming about the Chinese direction is that key governments in the world are keen to follow them.
“And we need in that respect to have a look at governments like Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, any governments with an authoritarian instinct.”
Graham Webster, coordinating editor of DigiChina at the New America think tank, said there were legitimate concerns about the spread of AI technology that would help track and control populations.
“Some of the machines and applications being developed in China in order to achieve certain survellience or other goals are now on the market for people, governments, companies around the world to purchase,” he said.
“These products are built in the context of an authoritarian state.”
Mr Webster said facial recognition, pattern matching and data analysis were among AI technologies which presented new opportunities for governments.
“It can be tempting to authorities to overstep or to go farther in surveillance than they would have been able to before,” he said.
Experts say it is for this reason discussions around the regulation of AI need to happen as a matter of urgency.
“The threat to us is that our governments and our corporations are rushing to China to borrow the technology, and we have no controls on those sorts of technologies,” Professor Austin said, pointing to Google as a classic example of a major company working with the Chinese Government.
“We don’t have policies or laws in place to protect the leakage of the technologies that have that negative capability from use against citizens in the Western world.”
But as Professor Uwe Aickelin, head of the school of computing and information systems at the University of Melbourne, explains there is a key stumbling block when it comes to governance.
“Rules and regulations for AI are difficult because we can’t define AI,” he said.
Professor Aickelin said data protection regulations were so far the closest controls on AI.
‘Killer robots in the sky’
Without tight controls around the way AI can be used, fears are also growing about what it could mean in the defence industry.
Drones are just one of many examples of the use of AI in warfare.
“With military drones the United States has really led the world over the Rubicon into, for lack of a better term, the land of killer robots in the sky,” Mr Webster said.
“These are controlled remotely, they’re not automated, but they could be. There’s no reason to believe that other countries won’t follow in that direction.”
Speaking to the ABC recently, the Centre for a New American Security’s Elsa Kania warned China was making progress using AI in military systems.
“[The People’s Liberation Army] is exploring the use of AI to enhance command decision-making capabilities, seeking to achieve decision superiority on the future battlefield,” Ms Kania said.
Bodies like the UN’s expert group on lethal autonomous weapons and the International Organisation for Standardisation are working on policies for AI.
But experts say these kinds of talks need to ramp up, and quickly.
By Ian Burrows