China’s technological advances have long been a concern for the US government. In the field of artificial intelligence (AI), the emerging world power in the East is a pioneer. The technology is used by the Chinese state for surveillance. But US tech giants are also working in a hurry to expand the surveillance state. The Corona crisis is coming to companies and states.
Strategy papers from the National Security Commission for Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) in the US show what it takes to keep China at bay in the future. According to the law, the Commission is to make proposals on how the US government, together with the private sector, can defend the US technological advantage against China. The Commission was created by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2018.
NSCAI Vice-Chairman Robert Work described the Commission’s main says as follows: to find ways in which the US ‘national security apparatus’ can approach AI so that “the US government works efficiently with industry to compete with China’s concept of “civil-military fusion”. Work served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense until 2017.
The NSCAI board includes leading employees of the largest US digital companies. These include those from Google, Oracle and Microsoft, as well as members of the US intelligence services. Thanks to the Publicity Act, the NSCAI had to release its own presentation from May 2019, entitled “Chinese Tech Landscape Overview”.
In the eyes of the NSCAI, far-reaching changes in the American economy are necessary. This is the only way for the US administration to secure a technological advantage over China, the Commission concludes. In the detailed presentation, she shows which strategies the NSCAI is aiming for. This spring, thanks to a request from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) using the Public Information Act, it was made public in 2019.
China at an advantage
The NSCAI concludes that China generally has “structural advantages” in the field of AI as well as in digital business models. Although the US is still a leader in the development of technologies, it is not in the areas of their application and further development. “In these areas, China is much faster due to structural factors,” writes the NSCAI.
Structural obstacles are called legacy systems in the presentation. This is understood to mean previous forms of business. The NSCAI refers to the financial system, which is still handled by cash and card payments instead of digital payments. Or the individual car ownership that still prevails in the US instead of carpooling and robot cars. The NSCAI also sees major differences in medicine: If treatments by a doctor are still common in the USA, these are increasingly being supplanted by AI in China. Although the “old systems” are “good enough” in the US, they would hinder “new things” such as AI technologies, which are already widespread in China.
NSCAI is also concerned about the expansion of Chinese corporations that sell AI technologies worldwide. In the eyes of the NSCAI, they had already “crossed borders”. Specifically, the NSCAI refers to the Chinese companies CloudWalk, which is leading the construction of facial databases in Zimbabwe, as well as to Yitu, which sells image recognition technologies to the Kuala Lumpur police.
Also mentioned is the company Alibaba, which uses AI to build so-called smart cities in several cities. If this continues, Chinese corporations would assume a “clear leadership role in artificial intelligence” in the future. “China could largely write the rules of international norms around the use of AI in the future, especially for nations that are ideologically oriented towards Beijing,” writes the NSCAI.
Data protection as a barrier
The hardly existing data protection rules play into the hands of the Chinese companies. Because they are much stricter in the US, this slows down the technological development of US corporations. In this context, a possible “removal of regulatory obstacles” will also be discussed. Only in this way can China be prevented from leaving. The criticism of data protection, which is already much weaker in the USA than in Europe, is not explicitly expressed in the presentation, but is clearly recognizable in the context. Mass surveillance is mentioned as a prime example: “Enormous state data on its own population has allowed China to make a leap forward.”
The NSCAI considers the government monitoring programs for the technological progress of Chinese corporations to be particularly suitable, which could gain a competitive advantage over US corporations through mass production and cost reductions. The presentation describes the state mass surveillance programs as the “first and best customers for artificial intelligence”.
Moreover, the NSCAI sees surveillance as another advantage of China in making it easier for the government to use huge databases on the health of its own citizens. “It would not be a surprise if the Chinese government sequenced each citizen’s DNA in the near future and stored it in government databases, which is hard to imagine in the US and Europe, where there is a higher level of data protection awareness,” the NSCAI continues.
Data is the new oil
Individual members of the NSCAI have already commented publicly on the different standards regarding data protection. Chris Darby, the current CEO of In-Q-Tel and a member of NSCAI, told CBS: “Data is the new oil and China is flooding with it. They do not have the same restrictions as us when it comes to collecting and using the data, because there are differences in privacy between our countries.” The fact that China has the largest data set in the world is a huge advantage for the country in the east, Darby said.
Statements by Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and current CEO of the National Security Commission for Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), go in the same direction. He wrote in the New York Times in February that the US is still way ahead of China today, but that it will fall behind in five to ten years. Among other things, he addressed the concerns that citizens have about privacy and AI. Schmidt said: “If the American public does not trust the benefits of new technologies, these doubts will hold us back.” Schmidt advocates state support for AI technologies in the future. “Without the help of the government, we cannot win the technology wars.” He argues that “global leadership in AI” is “crucial” for the growth of the U.S. economy and national security.
Artificial intelligence is not a threat
Skepticism about privacy rules and AI may have turned to the tech giants. Surveillance technologies are touted as hopefuls in the fight against coronavirus. Business is increasingly handled through the online trade of digital companies.
At the same time, digital payments displace cash. Google and Apple, which have almost a monopoly on the operating systems of smartphones, want to permanently integrate contact tracking into the operating systems. The collection of health data suddenly becomes a top priority. At present, US digital companies are working hard to expand digital databases and AI platforms that can be misused for surveillance purposes – just two examples. For now, Google’s efforts to diagnose diseases using AI and algorithms in the future are focused on cancers. But soon this will also happen for Covid-19 diagnoses. For this Google donated 8.5 million dollars to several organizations.
Google is also working with Harvard University’s Global Health Institute to provide so-called “Covid-19 Public Forecasts,” which predict the prevalence of Covid-19 cases. These are expected to provide 2 weeks in advance of predictions of the emergence and spread of Covid-19 cases for U.S. districts and states.
Health pass is already in use
Also in the making are so-called health passports. Recently, a digital health passport has been tested in the UK when travelling. The Commons Project Foundation, which developed one, recently launched a pilot project, also known as the CommonPass system. What would hardly have been possible until recently now seems possible.
“In addition to a global health crisis, the coronavirus has ultimately become an experiment in how to monitor and control people on a large scale,” writes the business magazine Forbes.