What do Chinese spy balloons, shipping cranes, and ChatGPT have in common?
They all give us a glimpse into the coming conflict with China over the future of artificial intelligence (AI) — and the future of freedom.
ChatGPT is, of course, the latest iteration of an open-source AI application, and it has provoked a furor here in the U.S. This is about more than companies such as J.P. Morgan and Verizon limiting employees’ access to ChatGPT out of fear that they will use it to take shortcuts in preparing reports or other projects, especially since ChatGPT isn’t always accurate (the myth is that it’s infallible; it’s not).
ChatGPT has also fed the current worries over “bias” that haunts every discussion about AI in this country, whether it’s a bias that offends the Right (since ChatGPT refused to generate an essay praising Donald Trump) or the Left — along with Terminator fantasies of AI-driven machines replacing humans and taking over the world.
Let’s contrast that with what’s happening in China. There, President Xi Jinping has dedicated some $150 billion to making China the first AI-driven nation, which includes building a massive police-surveillance apparatus and social-credit system powered by AI. In Xinjiang Province, home of China’s oppressed Uyghur Muslim minority, the government uses AI-sifted Big Data and facial recognition to scrutinize anyone entering a mosque or even a shopping mall, thanks to the thousands of checkpoints requiring a national ID check-in. Meanwhile, AI-driven facial-recognition software allows the government to keep track of anyone they want, wherever they go and whatever they do, virtually 24/7.
That’s why half of the 2 billion surveillance cameras now in use around the world are in China. Furthermore, when Google’s Deep Mind employed AI to defeat a world-class human champion at Go, China’s national game, in 2017, the People’s Liberation Army realized that AI had the potential to give it an insurmountable edge on the battlefield — including enhanced command-and-control functions, directing hypersonic strikes, and building swarm technology for thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as designing object-recognition and facial-recognition targeting software and AI-enabled cyber deterrence. Thanks to China’s military-civilian fusion laws, the work that Chinese companies do in AI research and development is automatically available to the Chinese military and intelligence services to shape their future force posture.
And that is where the Chinese spy balloon, and the breaking story about the Pentagon’s worries that cranes at shipping facilities are being used to spy on cargo logistics, comes in — not to mention Chinese telecom-equipment giant Huawei and the 5G networks it’s building around the world. In all three cases, Chinese-made technology will be collecting the data that’s the mother’s milk of AI and Machine Learning (ML).
ML is the subset of AI that uses algorithms to curate data, learn from it, and build models that can make a determination or prediction about certain things or events faster and more efficiently than human beings can. And the more data the model can digest, the better and more accurate it gets.
That’s why access to data will become the decisive instrument for exercising command over AI/ML’s future, whether in financial markets or on the battlefield. And that’s why establishing control over access to the avalanche of data that will come through 5G wireless technology — or from spy balloons or satellites or even shipping cranes — becomes as important as control over AI itself, because it will determine the options the AI program presents to solve a particular problem — but not the problem itself. As AI scientist Yoshua Benigo has put it, deep-learning networks “tend to learn statistical regularities in the dataset rather than higher-level abstract concepts.” Those concepts have to come from the programmer to be effective.
The Chinese clearly understand this, and they have built their entire AI strategy on advancing their national interest, including finding ways to collect as much data as possible. That’s also why China helps other governments, such as Venezuela, develop the same surveillance capabilities. By using Chinese technologies, those governments are also supplying China’s military and intelligence services with the same data — whether they realize it or not.
So while we dither over the “ethics” of AI, China is building a global surveillance network that is coming to include the U.S. It’s there not just to spy, but to feed the AI/ML engines that keep China’s military and intelligence services on point.
Is artificial intelligence friend or foe? It depends on who’s doing the coding and who’s collecting the data — and why. Instead of slowing down development of AI, we should be speeding it up — while understanding that, as with any technology, what we get out of AI depends on what purposes we bring to it.
Final point: What makes AI disruptive isn’t the technology itself, but who sets the problems, and who makes the decisions based on its input. In other words, the future of AI ultimately depends on whom we want to be: free individuals making the key decisions that affect our lives, or passive cogs in someone else’s machine. If the U.S. doesn’t lead the way in pioneering AI and setting its guardrails, the CCP will — and freedom will suffer.