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The Monitoring Game: China’s Artificial Intelligence Push

It’s all keen and mean on the artificial intelligence (AI) front in China, which is now vying with the United States as the top dog in the field. US companies can still boast the big cheese operators, but China is making strides in other areas. The UN World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Thursday report found that IBM had, with 8,920 patents in the field, the largest AI portfolio, followed by Microsoft with 5,930. China, however, was found dominant in 17 of 20 academic institutions involved in the business of patenting AI.

The scramble has been a bitter one. The Trump administration has been inflicting various punitive measures through tariffs, accusing Beijing of being the lead thief in global intellectual property matters. But it is also clear that China has done much to play the game. “They are serious players in the field of intellectual property,” suggests WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry.

Machine learning is high up in this regard, as is deep learning, which saw a rise from a modest 118 patent applications in 2013 to a sprightly 2,399 in 2016. All this is to the good on some level, but the ongoing issue that preoccupies those in the field is how best to tease out tendencies towards bias (racism, sexism and so forth) that find their way into machine-learning algorithms. Then comes that problem of technology in the broader service of ill, a point that never really goes away.

In other areas, China is making springing efforts. Moving in the direction of developing an AI chip has not been missed, propelled by moves away from crypto mining. “It’s an incredibly difficult to do,” claims MIT Technology Review senior editor Will Knight. “But the fact that you’ve got this big technological shift like it once in a sort of generation one means that it’s now possible, that the playing field is levelled a little bit.”

The nature of technological advancement often entails a moral and ethical lag. Functionality comes before philosophy. AI has been seen to be a fabulous toy-like thing, enticing and irresistible. But what is good in one field is bound to be inimical in another. The implications for this should be clear with the very idea of deep learning, which stresses the use of neural networks to make predictions on collected data. Enter, then, those fields of natural language processing, facial recognition, translation, recommendation algorithms.

Canadian computer scientist Yoshua Bengio, regarded as a storming pioneer in the field of deep learning along with Yann LeCun and Geoff Hinton, has felt his conscience prick in this regard. “This is the 1984 Big Brother scenario,” he observed in quotidian fashion in an interview. “I think it’s becoming more and more scary.”

Bengio seems a bit late to the commentary on this point, given the prevailing dangers posed by existing technologies in the private sector in the field of surveillance. He could hardly have missed the fact that the tech company sector took the lead in matters of surveillance, leaving governments in the lurch on how best to get data on their citizens. Where there are the confessional solicitations of social media, monitoring officials have their work cut for them, a result which seems attempts to find backdoors and encourage compliance.

The PRC has enthusiastically embraced elements of facial recognition in its quest to create a total surveillance society, one that sorts the desirable wheat from the undesirable chaff. Anti-social behaviour is monitored. The way services are used by citizens is also controlled through its National Credit Information Sharing Platform, which is fast becoming a model for other states to emulate. Algorithmic tyranny has become a reality.

In January, George Soros, problematic as he has been in his financial meddling, noted how AI had supplied “instruments of control” which gave “an inherent advantage of totalitarian regimes over open societies.” (It was a pity that his speech was delivered before the failed managers and plunderers of the global economy at that holiday gathering known as the World Economic Forum in Davos.) China had become “the wealthiest, strongest and most developed in machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

The AI frontier, in short, teems with prospects dire and fascinating. But the way technology companies deal with data remain as important as those of the states that either sponsor them as champions or see them as collaborators on some level. The point is, both are out, through their use of artificial intelligence, to get at the basic liberties of citizens even as they claim to be advancing their interests. For some, is the making of a buck; for others, it’s that old issue of control.

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1 comment

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  1. Kyran

    “The nature of technological advancement often entails a moral and ethical lag. Functionality comes before philosophy. AI has been seen to be a fabulous toy-like thing, enticing and irresistible. But what is good in one field is bound to be inimical in another.”
    This may seem pedantic, as there is a gap between the rate at which technology changes and the rate at which our politicians address the changes, constantly addressing the issues as a retrospective or rearguard action. But the lag is not due to ignorance or incompetence or lax processes. The reality is that our politicians have absolutely no regard for the morality or ethics of an ‘argument’, having long since pledged allegiance to those who would benefit from the system. They go even further and entrench benefits for their own use and abuse, or for their political parties.
    In the late 90’s, the Victorian Kennett government oversaw the repeal of the Listening Devices Act, as it no longer applied due to the technological changes being made. Whilst the potentially intrusive nature of these technological changes wasn’t fully understood, the environment was, given the plethora of ‘Privacy Acts’ that had been introduced globally from the early 80’s.
    When the draft ‘Surveillance Devices’ legislation was introduced, it was sent out for ‘consultation’ and submissions were invited. Being the Kennett government, the ‘consultation’ period was grossly inadequate and the outcomes were decided long before the first discussion paper was released.
    Our ‘industry group’, which represented investigators, security professionals and others, attended various meetings and constantly argued that there was a fatal flaw in the proposed legislation. It attempted to define the devices rather than the processes by which they would be regulated. How could you legislate when changes would likely see the act redundant before it was proclaimed? The change in audio recording was in its infancy by today’s standards. The legislation was still adapting to physical bugging devices while technology was developing ‘remote’ devices. The transition was underway for ‘video’ recording in surveillance, yet the impending ‘digitalisation’ was largely some ‘nerds’ wet dream.
    It didn’t take too long to work out the whole scam was window dressing for changes in the perception of ‘privacy’ and the protections afforded for ‘the individual’s right to privacy’.
    Much of the legislation was overseen by the then Police Minister, Bill McGrath (National), with little, if any, oversight. The subsequent Police Minister, Andre Haermeyer (Labor) was no better. His attitude to security in the burgeoning ‘night club district’ was more cameras, despite there being no evidence whatsoever that cameras were deterrents for criminal behaviour. They are, at best, a retrospective attempt to identify offenders.
    Much of this article falls for the same notional distraction, that the technology presents a new problem when it is nothing more than the old problem being rehashed.
    In her book, ‘Stasiland’, “Anna Funder tells extraordinary stories from the underbelly of the most perfected surveillance state of all time, the former East Germany.”
    The facts and figures in the book are, literally, staggering. At its core is not genuine communism or Marxism or socialism. They are merely the labels attributed to these miscreants by historians too lazy to look at the ‘big picture’.
    “The GDR was a furtive and insidious tyranny. Through the Stasi it pried into every aspect of your life. It possessed armies of spies, paid and unpaid. Some estimates run as high as one for every six and a half members of the population.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/07/guardianfirstbookaward2003.biography

    As you point out, “The AI frontier, in short, teems with prospects dire and fascinating. But the way technology companies deal with data remain as important as those of the states that either sponsor them as champions or see them as collaborators on some level. The point is, both are out, through their use of artificial intelligence, to get at the basic liberties of citizens even as they claim to be advancing their interests. For some, is the making of a buck; for others, it’s that old issue of control.”
    The remedies today are no different to the remedies available in the GDR. Whilst the new technologies affords states – and, more importantly, corporations – the ability to effect a ‘surveillance state’, the likes of which would make the GDR weep with envy, the underlying freedoms, or human rights, are unaltered.
    Back in 1996, Mastercard released a survey on privacy. Whilst it is largely dated, as we insist on not asking the important questions, it is incredibly revealing.
    “Yet, despite the widespread acknowledgement that Australians are very concerned about privacy, very few authoritative surveys of public attitudes have ever been conducted.”
    “The classes of data that caused the greatest concern were ‘everyday banking transactions’ (66% of Australians would be very concerned), closely followed by ‘major financial transactions’ (61%) and income (57%), whereas the corresponding figure for everyday shopping habits was only 37%. A high level of concern was also voiced in relation to medical history (58%). Home address and home phone number were also of significant concern, at 41% and 39%.
    Government computer networks were perceived as a threat by the greatest proportion of people (80%) and were perceived to be the single main threat to personal privacy by the largest proportion of people (41%).
    The particular activities that elicited the greatest level of concern were:
    • phone-tapping (86% concerned or very concerned);
    • sharing of information between Government agencies (82%); and
    • sharing of information between different financial institutions (80%).”
    “Conclusions
    The data arising from the MasterCard survey confirms that Australians generally are concerned about many privacy issues, and that they are very concerned indeed about several matters, most markedly the intrusive behaviour of governments.
    The results also gives rise to the inference that white-collar Australians have a moderate level of understanding of information technology, and are reasonably prepared to compromise their privacy in return for benefits. Blue-collar Australians, on the other hand, feel powerless against governments and marketers, and are sceptical and nervous about the growth of surveillance technologies.”

    http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/MCardSurvey.html

    All of these technological changes have been used by the ‘powers that be’ to erode an essential human right, the right to privacy. The remedy? Every person should have unassailable and inalienable rights to access any files held on them, with full rights of ‘correction’ and remedies, where appropriate. Your bank has files on you. Your accountant has files on you. Your doctor has files on you. The threat to your information becomes exponential when these files are merged into centralised repositories. It is exacerbated when corporations, such as the Google’s and Facebooks and Twitter, etcetera, can become quasi repositories.
    The contest between the Chinese government and the American corporations is a side show. Why isn’t the Australian government immediately granting the Privacy Commissioner more powers, under the auspices of the AHRC, to enshrine these rights?
    Oh, that’s right. This mob couldn’t distinguish the difference between shite and clay.

    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/feb/03/labor-mps-considering-complaint-against-liberals-tim-wilson

    As for Labor, don’t expect anything. They will remain more than content to keep the status quo, content with the increasingly infrequent sideshow of the occasional hapless fool. After all, political parties are exempted from the Privacy Act – to protect their right to speak for us.

    https://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/41.%20Political%20Exemption/exemption-registered-political-parties-political-acts-and-pract

    “[they] justified the exemption for political parties and political acts and practices on the basis of the importance of freedom of political communication to Australia’s democratic process. He advised that the exemption was ‘designed to encourage that freedom and enhance the operation of the electoral and political process in Australia’.”
    One of my heroes back in those days was a Democrat who was, in my experience, one of the best informed politicians to have ever walked those once hallowed walls.
    “On the other hand, at the time of the introduction of the Bill, Malcolm Crompton, the then Privacy Commissioner, stated that the exemption for political organisations was inappropriate. Rather, he stated that political institutions ‘should follow the same practices and principles that are required in the wider community’. These sentiments were echoed by Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, when she introduced a Private Member’s Bill in June 2006 to remove the exemption for political acts and practices:
    “Politicians should be included in the rules that we expect the public and private sectors to abide by. We cannot lead and represent Australians when we do not adhere to the rules that we have made for them, as this merely plays into the notion that politicians cannot be trusted”.”
    Obviously, much has happened in the intervening years and now the whole notion of 1984 is nothing more than a narrative of our times. Orwell’s attitude to fascism has come to pass and it’s nothing to do with politics.
    “It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
    Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”

    http://orwell.ru/library/articles/As_I_Please/english/efasc

    Our privacy was commodified. Its sale and ownership is the greatest enabler of fascism we’ll ever know. It has nothing to do with technology. As you so well point out, it is all about control.
    Thank you Dr Kampmark. Take care

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