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Artificial intelligence is giving tyrants a brand new advantage

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Last week, we described the long-term crisis for democracy. But advanced Western economies face another pressure point — artificial intelligence, which is proving to be a new advantage to autocratic government.

The bottom line: Tyrants thrive on centralized power. So the sudden ability to monitor and assess one's subjects 24/7 is a boon for top-down power — and a blow to the more chaotic and dispersed bottom.

  • Andrew Ng, who founded Google Brain and the AI shop at Baidu, stopped by Axios last week and told us that Big Data and fast computing power "allow information to flow very quickly to the center."
  • At once, central planning, the crippling bane of the Soviet and pre-1979 Chinese economic systems, can begin to challenge the superiority of the free market — the "invisible hand" — as envisioned in the 18th century by Adam Smith, he said.
  • Smith "was the dominant, economics paradigm for centuries. But I think that that pendulum is swinging back a bit because of data and the internet."

Examples include China's chillingly precise surveillance apparatus and "social credit system," by which the government monitors its citizens and assigns them a "score" according to their behavior.

The big picture: Until now, the challenge to the post-World War II system has appeared to flow from mainly three public trends — a rejection of immigration, globalization and establishment leaders. These have led to a tribal mentality, in which nations and groupings within them are championing their own, and demonizing those viewed as outsiders. But these are just the threats from within.

  • There are also perils from outside the West, and that is where technology has played a role.
  • Big Tech and social media — weaponized for political purposes by Russia and others — have served as vehicles for sharpening the public divide.
  • And in the future, AI will super-charge the impact of both large tech companies and social media platforms, and offer autocratically minded leaders new tools for entrenching their power.

"These tools make it easier for authorities to track what is going on, influence the flow of information, and marginalize dissident voices," Darrell West, director of the center for technology innovation at the Brookings Institution, tells Axios. "At the same time ... it is easier through social media to find extreme voices and to exploit societal divisions, and harder to bring people together in a common purpose."

AI is one of the most disputed technologies of the age, and not everyone agrees on its impact on politics. Nicholas Wright, a neuroscientist who works on technology, said AI does not clearly favor either democracy or autocracy.

  • "History shows democracies and autocracies can both harness radical new technologies.
  • Any vast new autocratic control systems will be costly to run — [and] it's plausible those costs will be low enough to compete with liberal democracies, but that's still just a bet."
  • "Competition between the social systems is still evenly balanced."

The bottom line: If you are the West, the best answer is not to regulate or halt AI, Ng says, but to move even faster to dominate the technology's commanding heights.

  • "A laissez-faire approach is not what is needed for AI," he says.
  • "Several decades ago, we trusted our government enough to lead us to put man on the moon. It was over 5% of the U.S. federal budget of the time, but it got done.