China and AI

One in 3 billion dollar companies is now founded in China. Thinking about what’s going on and what lies ahead inevitably leads to a discussion around the Chinese government’s focus on AI and why the discussion matters to us. I thought I’d focus on 3 notes I took away.

First, the Chinese government’s goals in investing in artificial intelligence are likely both around leading technology while also using AI to build the world’s most powerful surveillance state. Check this video on the Daily Mail’s website. (still below)

Second, we will all feel the consequences of living in a world where facial recognition becomes commonplace. Consider a few examples –

  • FindFace, an app in Russia, compares snaps of strangers with pictures on VKontakte, a social network, and can identify people with a 70% accuracy rate.
  • Facebook’s bank of facial images cannot be scraped by others, but the Silicon Valley giant could obtain pictures of visitors to a car showroom, say, and later use facial recognition to serve them ads for cars.
  • Even if private firms are unable to join the dots between images and identity, the state often can. China’s government keeps a record of its citizens’ faces (as detailed above); photographs of half of America’s adult population are stored in databases that can be used by the FBI. Law-enforcement agencies now have a powerful weapon in their ability to track criminals, but at enormous potential cost to citizens’ privacy.
  • Employers can already act on their prejudices to deny people a job. But facial recognition could make such bias routine, enabling firms to filter all job applications for ethnicity and signs of intelligence and sexuality.
  • For example. researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated that, when shown pictures of one gay man, and one straight man, the algorithm could attribute their sexuality correctly 81% of the time. Humans managed only 61%. In countries where homosexuality is a crime, software which promises to infer sexuality from a face is an alarming prospect.
    (Note: the researcher went on record to say this study was all about proving a point)

Finally, it is tempting to disengage from the futurist debates around AI. For most of us, we’re working hard at our jobs, then trying to put in a good shift at home and take care of our health along the way. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we get to have a hobby or two. On the side, we hear all this buzz about various billionaires fighting each other on the prospects of AI. Is it going to lead to humanity’s doom? Is it going to bring forth the utopia where we work on better kinds of jobs? Why should we care?

In a thought provoking essay on how to think about these futurist debates, Cathy O Neil makes a telling point (lightly edited) —

“For the average person there is no difference between the singularity as imagined by futurists and a world in which they are already consistently and secretly shunted to the “loser” side of each automated decision. For the average person, it doesn’t really matter if the decision to keep them in wage slavery is made by a super-intelligent AI or the not-so-intelligent Starbucks Scheduling System. The algorithms that already charge people with low FICO scores more for insurance, or send black people to prison for longer, or send more police to already over-policed neighborhoods, with facial recognition cameras at every corner — all of these look like old fashioned power to the person who is being judged.

Ultimately this is all about power and influence. The worst-case scenario is not a vindictive AI or Sergey Brin not getting to celebrate his two-hundredth birthday. In the worst-case scenario, e-capitalism continues to run its course with ever-enlarging tools at its disposal and not a skeptical member of the elite in sight.”

Well said.

Longer note on Medium or LinkedIn.