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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China is criticized for its use of deeply controversial surveillance systems to control untrusted elements of its population. But the U.S., too, is developing such know-how as artificial intelligence fast becomes a leading factor in the race for power in the new world order.

What's happening: Since humans began resorting to war, technology has been decisive in who prevails. Today, as the U.S.-led, post-World War II system of global power unravels, next-generation influence will hinge on mastery of AI-infused technology that, while perhaps having innocent origins, has often been weaponized.

The big picture: Lisa-Marie Neudert, a researcher with Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project, said researchers are working on powerful AI technologies with enormous potential "for good." But they also can have malicious uses — facial recognition employed for police purposes at a football stadium can also be used to repress the Uighur people of western China.

"When these technologies become weaponized, they can be used for surveillance, manipulation and self-generating propaganda," Neudert tells Axios.  

  • Critics say that facial recognition systems deployed by China and passed on by Beijing to other autocratic states increasingly resemble Orwellian tactics.
  • But "persuasion architectures via surveillance-based micro-targeting are already deployed in the United States," Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Axios.
  • Mostly that has been for use in advertising, such as at Facebook. "But we've already seen it used for politics and more," Tufekci said.
"The idea that governments in Western nations will not want to get in on such a potent tool is ahistorical. If you build it, the powerful will want to use it."
— Zeynep Tufekci

Over the last few days, a number of long articles have described the role of AI in a lurch to a new techno-authoritarianism.

  • At the WSJ, CNAS's Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick wrote that not just China, but Egypt, Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, too, are aggressively employing cameras and facial recognition systems to track their citizens.
  • At the WP, Robert Kagan argued that such technology was enabling the new muscularity among authoritarian regimes — and pushing the West back on its heels.
  • Kagan asserted that democratic countries will treat the new technologies radically different from authoritarians. He tells Axios, "We may find ourselves back where we were circa 1914, when the only free, democratic space was in what Walter Lippmann called the 'Atlantic Community' — comprising the U.S. and Western Europe."

As we have previously reported, the world appears to be dividing into new zones of technological and geopolitical power resembling the Cold War. Facial recognition and other AI-infused systems are fundamental to the trend.

"While there are a million possibilities that follow from the advent of such new technologies, one is that the line between truth and fiction, facts and propaganda, are further blurred," CNAS's Fontaine tells Axios. "It's worth reflecting that the proper functioning of liberal democracy depends on facts, truth, and arguments."

Go deeper: Orwellian surveillance is changing us, powered by AI

Go deeper

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations were "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 6 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand, which were later lifted.

6 hours ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.

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