It would be an understatement to say that the 21st century has not been a good century for democracy. As has been well documented, democracy has lost ground years in both subtle and blunt ways. Now comes another growing trend, this one that is quietly spreading, in a seemingly harmless way, whose damage to democracy could be even more intractable, as it brings welcome changes to everyday life, along with its potential for damage.
We are talking about the rise of artificial intelligence, or AI. Or, more to the point, we should be.
AI is already an important part of everyday life around the world, and much of what it does for us is undisputed. But there’s a sinister side to the technology, too — one that’s demanding far more attention than it’s gotten so far. While cyber threats, in big letters, are viewed with great concern and are the focus of: significant government funding, human resources and legislation around the world, the threats that artificial intelligence in particular poses to democracy and human rights are usually little more than side issues. And yet AI and its dangers can play a crucial role in the great geopolitical battle of our time: the battle between democracy and autocracy.
As if supporters of democracy and human rights didn’t already have enough to do – from the… January 6 attack in the United States and tightening grip of Nicaragua’s Autocracyto the erosion of democratic norms in India and the weakening of the rule of law in Hungary— countering AI’s threats to democracy requires an entirely new strategy. That’s because, unlike the actions of a violent, partisan mob or a power-hungry autocrat, the impact of AI isn’t making big headlines. Instead, they come dressed in the comforting language of technological advancement.
Advances in technology have already integrated into societies in ways that allow for repression, crushing dissent and perpetuating power. They are often supposedly used to fight terrorism and crime, for a purpose for which: The effectiveness of AI has not been proven† By using tools such as: face recognitionsocial media surveillance and sophisticated police algorithms, authorities gain access to massive amounts of data that can also enable them to identify ideological rivals, unfavorable media and opposition figures.
The most extensive and blatant deployment of artificial intelligence to bolster state power has taken place in China. The Xinjiang region is the epicenter of a massive state campaign by brutal repressionbut the rest of the country is also gripped by less devastating forms of Oversight of AI functionality† China had already started building the infrastructure for online censorship and monitoring long before AI emerged, when it developed the massive surveillance machine dubbed the “Great Firewall.” AI has turned that project into something far more invasive and ubiquitous than a wall.
China may be the most extreme example, but it’s not alone in its troubling use of AI. Like a new report from the National Endowment for Democracy, or NEDshows, AI is now spreading across the globe, posing a particularly pressing threat to what it calls “swing states,” countries whose systems fall somewhere between democracy and autocracy, and where AI is at risk of being “used for ailments, including [to] anchor those in power and enable them to move forward toward repression.”
Not surprising, China has become a major supplier of AI technology, and again, its systems are exported under the guise of fighting terrorism and crime abroad. According to NED, Chinese tech companies, often backed by generous subsidies from Beijing, are leading the way in manufacturing and marketing AI equipment around the world at affordable prices. Surveillance cameras made by Chinese firms Hikvision and Dahua Technology reportedly account for nearly 40 percent of the world market† The latter, along with Huawei, is also reportedly working with the Chinese regime to produce new systems that include “emotion recognition” and “ethnic identification,” according to NED.
Unlike the actions of a violent, partisan mob or a power-hungry autocrat, the effects of AI don’t make big headlines. Instead, they come dressed in the comforting language of technological advancement.
By boosting the use of AI surveillance in countries balancing between democracy and autocracy, Beijing may be giving those governments a nudge that could tip them toward autocracy, the political system that Chinese leader Xi Jinping actively promotes like him denigrates democracy†
According to NED’s calculations, of the 67 countries that belong to that “swing” category, 55 are members of China’s global development program, the Belt and Road Initiative, while 44 already have surveillance capabilities.
But swing states and Chinese customers aren’t the only ones getting in on the AI action. Applications of this new technology are everywhere. The wave that has led to quality-of-life improvements such as near-instant Google search results, up-to-date traffic data and navigation advice, and email spam protection is also being used in just about every country on Earth to improve surveillance. . That includes in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other members of the European Union and NATO. And it’s not just China that sells AI systems; high-tech manufacturers from all over the world participate.
The potential of AI has not gone unnoticed by entrepreneurs. Elon Musk from Tesla has famously sounded the alarm by declaring AI “the most terrifying problem” facing humanity – even as he profits lavishly from its use in his company’s vehicles and in his other businesses. But as technology and its use accelerate, efforts to make it safe for democracy, human rights and other fundamental aspects of society continue to pose a threat as it evolves.
In the US, the Biden administration is: presenting new AI “Bill of Rights.” The European Union works about block-wide legislation† Until now, much of the work to create protections against misuse of AI technology has sounded high-tech and philosophical, but the kind of strong, specific, and enforceable rules promoted by NED have not materialized.
As the global battle between democracy and autocracy unfolds and democracy loses ground, this mysterious yet crucial aspect of the contest will eventually receive the recognition it deserves. But by then it may have already won irreversible victories to the promoters of the autocracy.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist and a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. You can follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.