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A paradise for the age of the techno-autocrat

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