BEIJING (Analysis) — Speaking to a group of students in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a bold proclamation. “Artificial intelligence is the future,” he said, stating that this is a fact “not only for Russia but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
This single quote from Putin was cast in an ominous light by Western media, even leading SpaceX founder — and the most recognizable critic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — Elon Musk to warn that the race for AI superiority “at a national level” may be the “most likely cause” of a potential world war. While the Western media may want their consumers to believe that this was the latest development in the tactics used in “Russian aggression” and the next logical step from the dreaded “troll farms,” those more grounded in reality acknowledged that, while Putin is right, Russia is not the number two competitor with the United States.
The real competitor in the race for AI superiority should be obvious. There is only one nation quickly catching up to the perceived technological superiority of the United States: China.
Not only is China’s tech industry catching up with the United States but, unlike Washington, Beijing is directly investing billions of dollars in AI research projects. Washington has ceded both control of AI research and the drafting of laws governing and guiding tech companies to the CEOs of said companies and their lobbyists.
There are also major differences between Beijing and Silicon Valley, with the former seeking to use AI for improving human life economic systems in conjunction with the state while the latter seeks to exploit, extort and monitor humanity through the submission of the state.
These two approaches are night and day and account for many of the reasons that the West is truly threatened by the race for AI between the neoliberal privatizers in the U.S. and those pushing an alternate model in China that will largely operate as an extension of state economic management.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Aug. 21, 2013.
Elon Musk may worry about the future of AI but this is not a feeling shared by many of his colleagues in Silicon Valley. When it comes to discussing the AI research sector in the U.S., it is useful to focus on the most well-known of Musk’s fellow tech behemoths who are leading the way. There are three companies that deserve the most scrutiny: Facebook, Google, and Amazon — which, working with agencies like the CIA and NSA as well as in partnership with other private companies, now dominate the AI game.
Although these giant companies score very low in public trust, they’ve nonetheless been placed in charge of the nation’s AI, essentially by default. When it comes to trusting names like Facebook, Google, and Amazon with this kind of technology, if their current business models are any indicator, we should all be wary.
Let’s start with the example of Facebook; a company run by Mark Zuckerberg, a man who is so lacking in empathy that he has no problem doing things like running psychiatric tests on unaware customers or attempting to steal land from indigenous people.
Facebook has already launched several projects to develop AI, led by their Facebook AI Research (FAIR) program. Included in this group’s research are projects such as the collection and analysis of Facebook users’ personal photos to better understand “the popular visual concepts illustrating various cultural lifestyles.”
While FAIR’s smaller projects don’t always make the news, they do on those occasions when they begin producing results that show the research has surpassed programmers’ expectations. Such was the case in July of last year when Facebook’s AI began speaking a language the humans couldn’t understand, causing that particular program to be shuttered.
Facebook also applies AI to its user data in other ways, such as the system revealed late last year that will track users’ online activity and behavior to evaluate their mental health. While that may sound altruistic to some, having Facebook leading the charge should cause some concern.
After all, Facebook is the company that admittedly ran a (borderline illegal) experiment to manipulate the mood of its users by filtering the content they saw. This gross breach of trust with its users was later justified by Facebook, whose lawyers said the experiment was all within the guidelines of the user agreement, which comes in at over 15,000 words and readers may remember as that book-length document (with links to several more specific agreements) that tech companies are fully aware nobody possibly has the time to read.
It is also important to remember that Facebook serves as a giant marketing platform that derives its value from its ability to provide advertisers with users’ personal information. While it’s known that the platform is filled with easily-purchased and highly-targeted advertisements, there is also suspicion on behalf of users that Facebook could use phone and computer microphones to listen in on conversations for further ad-targeting.
While Facebook denies these claims, the other two companies on our list are a lot more open about their spying, while also engaging in business practices similar to those of Facebook.
Facebook’s AI competitor, Google, is also advancing its programs, including one that perfectly mimics human speech. Innovations like these are the reason many experts think that Google is at the head of the pack on developing its AI.
Much like Facebook, however, Google also is guilty of collecting massive amounts of data on its users. Also, like Facebook, some of the means Google uses in this data collection rely on AI — such as the Google ‘voice search’ feature, which has been shown to record conversations even when not in use.
Google also recently launched its photography software, which they claimed would “instantly recognize faces of special interest to its owner and, when it spots those faces, takes candid pictures of them.” Many people were uncomfortable when Google first unveiled this new technology — including Elon Musk, who criticized the software on Twitter, saying it “doesn’t even *seem* innocent.”
Google's new camera uses AI to automatically take photos of your life pic.twitter.com/ihkRZz16sL
— The Verge (@verge) October 7, 2017
If all of this isn’t bad enough, now Google is also creating devices that utilize AI to do even more blatant and comprehensive data-gathering. In this new arsenal is the popular Google Home, an AI assistant that responds to voice commands, which has been shown to listen in on users even when not in use.
This unwanted feature of Google Home is also built into products from the last company on our list of AI giants: Amazon. Much like Google Home, Amazon Echo and it’s AI program ‘Alexa’ also listen in on users.
Also following Google’s strategy, this data is then combined with data taken from other methods, such as monitoring search histories or product purchases, and added to massive databases kept by these private tech firms. This stored data is later fed back into Amazon’s AI, which then uses the data to drive Amazon’s “algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and much more,” according to CEO Jeff Bezos in a letter to shareholders.
If the massive storage of data and unwitting exposure to things like experiments “educating” these advanced computer learning systems for private companies isn’t enough, things get even murkier when you examine the relation between these three tech giants and the U.S. government.
Defense Secretary James Mattis chats with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos during a visit to west coast tech and defense companies. (Jeff Bezos/Twitter)
These three tech giants sometimes complain that they don’t work in a healthy business climate in nations like China, where Facebook has been banned for not complying with government regulations, but these factors don’t seem to bother them when it comes to operating in the United States.
Facebook, for example, has become a focal point of the hysteria in the U.S. media surrounding “Russian interference” in the 2016 election. Following congressional hearings, Mark Zuckerberg apparently decided that changes were needed at Facebook, saying in a post on his social media platform that “the world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate [or] defending against interference by nation states.”
As anyone reading this article probably knows, that portion of Zuckerberg’s comment on “interference by nation states” doesn’t only mean protection against the ever-obscuring concept of “Russian meddling,” but also the rewriting of Facebook’s algorithms (a form of AI) and policies to further censor Russian perspectives — which in turn usually means more censorship on all media critical of U.S. imperialism by labelling it “Russian propaganda”. If that isn’t bad enough, Facebook has also recently been alleged to be deleting accounts selected by U.S. and Israeli intelligence. Facebook has also lobbied the government to stop attempts at writing stronger internet privacy rules, which Google has also pushed against.
Google is a unique case with strange beginnings as a simple search engine turned tech behemoth, with a lot of the seed money coming from research groups connected to the intelligence community. The intelligence community’s aim in financing the projects that make up the base of Google’s technology related to their value as data collection tools that would serve both private industry and spy agencies. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page both received what was essentially seed money for their company through a government-funded program at Stanford University.
This connection between the U.S. government and Google hasn’t dissipated since that initial creation. Indeed, Google has since filled its ranks with ex-intelligence personnel. This includes many people who come from the top ranks of agencies — such as Jared Cohen, who moved from the Obama State Department to Google Ideas, the company’s in-house think tank. Cohen and current Google CEO Eric Schmidt are also among the members of the company who visited Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the U.K. last year in what Assange believes was an attempt to glean information from him.
Then there is Amazon, perhaps the most notorious collaborator with U.S. intelligence. In fact, Amazon’s CEO — and owner of the pro-intelligence/anti-Trump Washington Post — Jeff Bezos garnered quite a bit of attention at the end of last year when he inked a $600 million contract with the CIA.
The CIA approached Amazon, having recognized the tech company’s proficiency in creating the aforementioned databases the company likes so much, and asked them to build the CIA its own. The new cloud server, built by Amazon Web Services (AWS), will reportedly store a range of CIA data. It has been confirmed that some of this data will be classified, which basically means the CIA will be storing classified data on Amazon servers. These are likely to be the most high-security cloud services online, but it is important to remember that even large clients such as Uber have had their Amazon cloud storage breached. The U.S. intelligence agencies are also often accused of being on the other side of the hacker-hacked relationship, and are suspected to have stolen data from the very tech companies they do business with.
At this point, some people will ask: “What do the tech companies get out of this relationship?”
The answer is fairly simple. Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are allowed to act with impunity. This means that the hyper-exploitative, crony-capitalist, neoliberal views of these tech giants are applied wherever they do business.
This manipulation of the government by companies like Facebook and Amazon can best be observed at the local level, such as in the area around Silicon Valley. In San Francisco, for example, the employees of these tech companies have managed to drive up property values and make the city so exclusive that even the blue-collar employees who work for the tech companies have to sleep on buses or live in cars. These employees are often contractors which, thanks to lobbying by tech companies for the age of the “gig economy,” means they are legally denied the same health, safety, and financial protections as staff members.
The tech companies, for their part, seem to acknowledge this as a problem but often, instead of addressing it, instead build ways to ignore it, such as private bus services that keep money from public transportation. There have been proposals to curb some of these problems, such as affordable housing projects, but they are typically lobbied against either by the white collar residents in the city or by realtors making a killing in the local market. On top of all this, even if the local government did want to do more, San Francisco still manages to accrue massive budget deficits despite having measures in place such as high state and local taxes and having the seventh highest GDP and highest property values among cities in the US.
Another recent display of the incredible amount of power these companies hold over local governments is the wave of videos by city and state politicians across the country practically begging Amazon to build its second headquarters in one of their cities. And if watching spectacles such as the mayor of Kansas City reviewing Amazon products in a video to ‘charm’ Bezos, or the mayor of Gary, Indiana pleading with Bezos to move his HQ there, isn’t enough for you, it’s important to remember there have also been billions of dollars in tax breaks offered to Amazon by cities competing for its business.
These crony-capitalist practices don’t just apply to these tech companies’ physical locations. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have all taken their privileged philosophy global by hiding money in multiple tax havens to avoid paying the special (i.e., discounted) tax rates they already receive. To be fair though, it seems that these companies are planning on bringing some of this money back to the U.S., now that it will be taxed at a lower rate as a part of the new Republican tax scheme that Silicon Valley lobbied for. Some members of Silicon Valley, such as Google engineer Patri Friedman and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, have even crafted plans to go a step further — such as the ‘Seasteading Institute,’ which would allow elite technocrats to escape to floating cities free of any nation’s laws.
These tech companies also export to other countries their philosophy on how low-skill workers should be treated. One way this ties into both the economic practices of these companies and their development of AI is how they outsource their need for human interactions with AI networks to ‘teach’ those networks how to better mimic organic intelligence and human learning habits. This is best exemplified by Amazon’s ‘Mechanical Turk’ service, which outsources these “micro-tasks” to vulnerable populations in places like Gaza, sometimes for as little as $0.01 per contract. This is referred to as ‘Microwork,’ which consists of a variety of tedious tasks from tagging photographs to translating or transcribing short texts.
These are the standard practices of Silicon Valley, and just a snapshot of the many ways they’re using AI while also maintaining substantial control over any state body that could rein them in. This is what happens when capital manages to precede and overwhelm the public’s voice as politically expressed through the state in dictating how a nation’s technology should be run.
There is, however, an alternative model to this, which is now being implemented by Beijing and may just show the world how a responsible state grapples with machine intelligence.
An AI powered robot interacts with a child at a tech and innovation expo in Nanjing, China. (China Daily)
While Silicon Valley is doing its best to hyper-exploit workers and avoid state control and regulation at all cost, there is a new model emerging from China, which, instead of manipulating the state, is led by one that lifts millions from poverty each year.
This government is also led by President Xi Jinping, who has had his dictums for the future of China inscribed at the base of the Communist Party’s doctrine as ‘Xi Jinping Thought.’ This new school of thinking (under a president who may now stay in office for life) covers every aspect of Chinese policy from climate change solutions, education, military strategy, and social programs to, of course, technological development.
These advancements are a part of a complete and ongoing overhaul of the Chinese state under Xi, by which he intends to show that China has officially attained world power status. Further facilitating this is the fact that China is also expanding its role on the global stage as the U.S. under Donald Trump recedes.
AI is the perfect demonstration of this difference in priorities when you look at factors like the decreasing U.S. state funding for AI research compared to China’s plan to invest $150 billion by 2030. While this may seem a short timeframe for any nation to truly “win” the race for AI superiority, experts who work in China — such as Kai-Fu Lee, a veteran of Microsoft Research and Google — say this 12-year window may be “too pessimistic” and that China could be the clear leader in AI even sooner (an assessment with which even some U.S. firms agree).
Since some believe that China is already leading in AI, it is worth noting what some of their major projects are. Besides the usual human-like robots, China has also created impressive AI programs, such as one that managed to teach itself enough to receive a medical accreditation.
Watch | China opens first AI-assisted treatment center
A major focus of Chinese AI programs is the ways the advancements in technology can aid in the administration of China’s planned economy. China looks to use its advancements in AI to partially or fully run crucial pieces of infrastructure, such as automated oil production lines and seaports. With past Chinese innovations in the planned economic model and this new position as a leader in AI, it now seems that, by integrating this technology, China may avoid some pitfalls that have caught up other countries with large state bureaucracies.
This isn’t to say that Beijing and Silicon Valley are always in competition. Indeed there are some joint projects between U.S. companies like Google and Chinese firms (although these relationships are often tenuous and Google has been kicked out before for not following China’s censorship laws). The fundamental difference between how these companies work in the U.S. and China is that in the U.S. they effectively control the state while in China the state restricts them.
U.S. firms are also distrusted by the Chinese and are often accused of poaching Chinese talent produced by China’s superior STEM education. As stated above, Google has already been kicked out of China for not complying with censorship rules (while still helping U.S. spy agencies), in an attempt to create the appearance that it was making some brave political stand. The difference in this power dynamic is clear: in the U.S., cities beg companies like Amazon to open an office building, while in China we find the CEO of Facebook asking Xi for baby names and requiring his staff to read the Chinese president’s speeches.
This balance of power between capital and the state in China illustrates a manner in which AI can be developed responsibly. Now obviously, China will most likely encounter its own roadblocks as it develops its AI, and of course there is the potential with any new technology like this for misuse or abuse, whether by corporate or state actors. But at least the world now has another viable option and model for the future of AI rather than just that offered by Silicon Valley.
Vladimir Putin was right to say that whoever wins the race for AI will lead the world, but the question that the world should be considering is: What kind of actors should we trust to lead the next great technological leap forward?
Top Photo | Chinese students work on the Ares, a humanoid bipedal robot designed by them with fundings from a Shanghai investment company, displayed during the World Robot Conference in Beijing. (AP/Ng Han Guan)
Jim Carey is an editor at Geopolitics Alert. He covers the Middle East and Eurasian affairs.
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