What’s your score?
China’s tech and AI development is impressive. But it might also lead to the largest population on Earth being completely controlled by a totalitarian state. The tool? A social score used to reward or punish people, based on data from digital platforms and surveillance cameras.
In today’s world there are few topics that really get the discussion going the way China does. Facts are mixed with personal experiences and random overheard stories. Eastern propaganda clashing with Western freedom of speech sparks both fear and curiosity on both ends. Lately the conversation has been focused on China’s AI and tech development. Media, futurists, think tanks, agencies and other global organizations have bombarded us with news and forecasts on how China is becoming the world’s leader in tech expansion and AI research. These areas are at the top of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) agenda, and Chinese tech companies often work closely together with the government.
What kind of society will emerge?
Three of the nine biggest companies for AI development globally are Chinese; Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. These three together are worth around one trillion US dollar and their investments have skyrocketed, aquiring 164 unicorns during last year. But what does it mean when a totalitarian state takes the lead in such a development – what kind of society will emerge? And how will this affect the Chinese people and the rest of the world?
The MIT technology review from 2017 claimed we should not fear this development happening in China.It also argued that the West should copy it. The word “copy” goes well with “made in China”, right? That is how the West has perceived China for a long time, as a factory lacking any respect for copyright or trademarks. But the tables have been turning. Only during the last decade in China, an art culture has also completely exploded; a new music scene has developed, and amazing design and creativity is flourishing. “Made in China” is now “Made by China”.
For decades, the West has been skeptical towards China. And China has, as a nation, been losing face collectively to the West for a long time. So imagine what it means when a report from MIT says that the West should copy China. Especially since Chinese people value personal honor and pride in everything – for a Chinese person to lose face in any way is the ultimate embarrassment. To them, the time has finally come to get the recognition they rightfully deserve. The West is suddenly in awe of China’s AI and tech development, eagerly trying to build collaboration bridges and establish knowledge exchange.
But there’s another side to the story – there’s a real risk that within a few years the largest population on Earth might be completely controlled by a totalitarian state, enabling one state ruler to change the behavior of each and every citizen with a single click.
A number ranks each person
The first time I heard of the social credit system was three years ago, when I still lived in China. With a massive smile and a gleam in her eye, my colleague Liwen snuck into my office and whispered, “I got a pay rise and my social credit has gone up!” I had to confess I had no idea what she was talking about and when she was done explaining I had chills all over. The system has been in place since 2014 and will be fully operational in 2020. The scheme is mandatory, and the exact methodology is – of course – a secret. The basics are: each citizen is given a social score. A number that ranks every individual, giving high or low scores based on data from different digital platforms on lifestyle behavior, status, friends and family etc. The score determines if you are going to be rewarded or punished. The rewards for a high credit score are many; favorable loans for housing, streamlined visa procedures for traveling abroad, even suggestions of high-class dating apps should your marriage not last.
The sword of Damocles
The punishments are harsh. A low score means difficulties getting train or flight tickets, slower internet speed (we refer to the web in China as “Chinternet – almost like having internet”, a closed network surrounded by the Great Fire Wall of China. You can imagine, it is not great to begin with), inability for your child to get into good schools, obstacles when looking for a new job, not being able to sign lease contracts and much more. These rewards and punishments are just the official ones.
The social credit system aims to “purify society” by letting “good people” move about without obstruction and leave a constant threat hanging like the sword of Damocles over the “bad ones”.
I recently caught up with a friend who lives in China. He occasionally goes out drinking with the local district police officers and at the end of a late night the (highly inebriated) chief of police picked up his phone, and took a blurry picture of a random patron next to them. Then he ran a search and showed the result to my friend where the man’s name and additional information instantly came up. “I can find anyone on this”, the chief boasted.
The CPC’s goal is to build a database over the entire population, enabling recognition of a citizen within seconds. The current surveillance network in China consists of about 200 million cameras all over the country and will be extended to 300-600 million cameras in 2020 (more exact numbers have not been made official). China’s development within AI and tech gives anyone with security clearance the possibility to locate and get background info on any given citizen within seconds.
It does not stop at facial or voice recognition, the latest development within surveillance tech is said to explore the possibility of interpreting body language to foresee felonies that are about to happen – an eerie realization of the plot from the 2002 movie “Minority Report” in which people are prematurely sentenced for a crime they have yet to commit. Also – when China says it is “exploring possibilities” it basically means it is up and running already.
So, why do the people of China agree to all this? The answer is almost too simple. They value safety higher than privacy. Research shows that when choosing a work place the young generation of China wants safety and secure employment. The one-child policy led to a generation referred to as the “Little Emperors”, which in short is a whole generation growing up with parents with an increased purchasing power and four grandparents having the one child as their main priority. The result is a highly spoilt generation used to being taken care of, with a family of elders wanting nothing but security and safety for their golden child.
The CPC is very skilled at making sure the citizens know that everything they do aims to ensure people’s safety. During Xi Jinping’s speech at the 2018 National People’s Congress in Beijing, he said that the CPC will keep absolute leadership over the armed forces with the goal of building a strong army. At an Interpol conference recently he stated that “Chinese society is stable and orderly, people happily live and work in peace,” and that “more and more people believe China is one of the world’s safest countries”.
Aim for increased collaboration
So, when the second largest economy in the world has the biggest population on Earth under its thumb, what does that mean for the global balance? Perhaps the West should be a bit less in awe of China’s technology development and instead of trying to copy it, find ways where AI won’t lead to total population control, but rather increased collaboration and less distance between countries and the people of the world. Because rest assured – where the West will be in another fifty years of tech development is where China is going to be in ten.