Will Digital Dictatorships Replace Liberal Democracies?


Artificial intelligence shifts the global
balance. While the West is conducting ethics debates,
one global power in the far east is expanding its autocratic system with big data. In the Soviet Union, surveillance and censorship
were widespread, out of fear that spread of information could destabilize the empire. In the early 1960s, even photocopiers throughout
the Soviet Union were closed off and only available in the presence of official witnesses. In the end, the Soviet communism failed because
it built a bureaucracy that collapsed under its own burden. Progress can not be locked away, that is the
lesson from the fall of the Iron Curtain. Since 1990, liberalism and democracy have
triumphed over autocratic systems and have established a liberal world order. 30 years have passed since then and things
have changed. Shaken by the financial crisis and unsettled
by the rise of populists, the West quarrels with itself. And now experts are analyzing futures scenarios
on behalf of the Pentagon: The crisis of liberal democracy coincides with a shift in power
to repressive regimes, the scale of which we are just beginning to understand. The General Staff of the US Armed Forces has
released a study these days that identifies a new ideological competitor of the West:
the digital dictatorship. “Artificial intelligence and big data promise
to reshape the world order,” it states. Just as competition between liberal-democratic,
fascist and communist societies shaped the twentieth century, so could the “struggle
between digital liberal democracy and digital authoritarianism” define the 21st century. Artificial intelligence makes totalitarianism
competitive again in the battle for systems by drastically reducing the cost of surveillance. Digital dictatorships no longer need to lock
up progress like their analog predecessors. They have the tools to exercise control without
stifling creativity. Collective oppression gives way to selective
bondage. China is currently building core components
of such a system of digital authoritarianism. The Pentagon study estimated China’s spending
on internal security at $ 196 billion in 2018 alone. In the past 30 years, China’s development,
especially the numerous more liberal reforms, made the West hope for a political opening-up
and a possible regime change from within. This hope is now shattered. China is not the only authoritarian regime
in the world, but it is undoubtedly the richest, strongest, and most advanced in machine learning
and artificial intelligence. The fact that the digital era is changing
the rules of international politics has also spread in the Kremlin: Those who take the
leadership over AI become the rulers of the world, ” Vladimir Putin said once. Europe lags far behind. The authors of the Pentagon paper simply define
AI as: “automated learning systems that evaluate data to perform complicated tasks.” From a geopolitical perspective, the AI debate
is about the development of repression technologies that solve the problem of the Soviet Union’s
failure: that enforced order ultimately means stagnation because the surveillance apparatus
buries social dynamics among itself. AI questions one of the last certainties that
the uncertain West could cling to. Only free systems of government could afford
to allow social change, only they are progress-compatible. We thought. With the “Great Firewall”, China has been
showing for years how tailor-made censorship works: information that is economically valuable
can be spread unhindered; on the other hand, political ideas are curtailed. The modern surveillance state restricts freedom
of expression but leaves enough room for becoming rich – and thus incentivizes innovation. Already, China’s IT companies can compete
with world leaders in the Silicon Valley, with Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu challenging
Facebook, Amazon and Google. The bond between state and large corporations
is very close in the autocracy of the 21st century. China’s leadership calls its repressive vision
“society management,” an Orwellian vocabulary as scary as its potential. Computer systems will probably soon predict
the outbreak of unrest, the technical challenges are hardly more demanding than the computer-assisted
crime prediction, which is also being experimented in Europe. With WeChat, Tencent’s all-rounder app with
nearly a billion users, you can already call up “heat maps” that show where people are
gathering. This is exactly what a surveillance state
dreams of: starting with political cleansing before a dissident becomes a dissident. Some believe that the bleak future of high-tech
autocracy has already begun. The current reality can not quite keep up
with such scary analyzes. The Chinese security apparatus is far from
being all-powerful, as Western observers occasionally portray it. But the progress is big enough to alert the
military strategists in the Pentagon – and that’s the key. International politics is determined not by
an objective truth, but by how great powers perceive each other. The AI paper of the Pentagon shows that US
military strategists do not want to wait until the transformation of the workers ‘and peasants’
state into a high-tech dictatorship is completed. They want counterstrategies, not at some point,
but now. Already last year, the US launched a global
campaign against Chinese network suppliers like Huawei. Americans fear that China will dominate tomorrow’s
digital infrastructure – and urge allies to refuse making deals with Huawei. The US government also wants to stop technology
transfers to China. The agenda pursued here can be reduced to
one word: Cut-Off. China should be cut off from Western innovation. The US government is convinced that the development
of future technologies such as AI is an existential struggle, comparable to the nuclear arms race
in the Cold War. However, the new system confrontation begins
with an “inherent advantage” for authoritarian regimes. AI is only as good as the data fed to it,
and in dictatorships, there is no holding back for the state to gather data without
any boundaries. Camera images, geo and health data, bank information,
criminal records and medical records – everything is within reach, effortlessly. China is the realm of super apps: WeChat,
launched as a text messaging service, can order taxis, arrange medical appointments,
book cinema tickets, pay for purchases – and, as the fine print states, “keep or disclose
user data” at the request of a government agency. Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, there is
the aftermath of the NSA affair. Lawmakers tighten data protection regulations,
politicians call for the destruction of data monopolies. Recently, employee protests forced Google
to abandon a Pentagon project designed to develop monitoring video evaluation algorithms. The fear of being perceived as an extension
of the US government: this is the Snowden trauma of Silicon Valley. There is a lot at stake, the privacy and ultimately
the self-image of liberal democracies. Ultimately there is the question. If governments have the ability control their
populations through technology. Is liberal democracy still a system of the
future?

Maurice Vega

10 Responses

  1. The audio is superb from now, as promised! Quick side note for early watchers: Youtube is still processing HD, so until then only 360p is available. Shouldn't take too long.

  2. Question of the day: Who do you think will win? Digital Dictatorships or Liberal Democracies? Has your view on it changed from before after watching the video?

  3. Another great video Valorian! Scary stuff but I suppose it is what it is. It appears AI itself is the real winner but short term it does seem the dictatorships could end up having the upper hand. There is an inherent latency that comes with democratic processes and with the world moving full speed ahead with all this AI technology, the need to slow things down to make democratic decisions is more likely to fall behind. Nice audio!

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