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The rise and risks of artificial intelligence

Humans are insatiably curious. We have been asking questions since the dawn of history – especially questions pertaining to our origin and destiny. Most of the public discussions which revolve around the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) generally focus on positive outcomes. This is driven by an agenda which attempts to convince us that advancements in technology will help humanity, not harm it. Some of the so-called advantages relate to transhumanist health modifications, computer implants in our bodies and brains and even nanobots which will one day be so advanced that they will change our very cells. But people who advocate for AI tend to overlook the fact that they are insisting people become less human and more machine.

George Orwell introduced ideas of blanket surveillance in a totalitarian state, of thought control and newspeak: ideas that now increasingly come up in connection with developments in AI, particularly the attempt to build computer technology that can do the sorts of things that a human mind can do. In short, some are seeking the production of an imitation mind. Billions of dollars have been invested in the development of AI systems, and there is a great deal of interest in where it's going to lead. Better quality of life through digital assistance, medical innovation and human enhancement on the one hand, and fear of job losses and Orwellian surveillance on the other hand.

One increasing application of AI that initially seems positive is in assisting large corporations with hiring new employees. For instance, a technology venture called HireVue has developed a platform that simplifies the job interviewing process. The most common use of that technology is an interview in which a set of questions is created. Candidates respond on video, after which artificial intelligence algorithms are used to evaluate his/her performance. The system looks at 25,000 different features and the complex relationships between them, and it might see things that a human observer cannot. However, after 86 unsuccessful job applications in two years – including several HireVue screenings – one applicant stated that she became thoroughly disillusioned with automated systems. Without a person across a table there was no real conversation or exchange, and she found it difficult to know exactly what the robot was looking for – this for someone with a master's degree from the London School of Economics. Despite her qualifications, she found herself questioning every movement as she sat at home alone performing for a computer. It made her feel that she was not worthwhile, as the company wouldn't even assign a person for a few minutes. In other words, she was made to feel less human.

One of the major Orwellian aspects of AI is that certain forms of it present a very serious threat to individual and corporate privacy. AI tracker programmes are geared to harvesting as much data as possible that you generate about yourself – your lifestyle, habits, where you go, what you buy, people with whom you communicate, books you read, tasks you do, political and social activities, your personal opinions – a list that is being added to all the time. Mark Zuckerberg once boasted that Facebook would know every book, film and song a person had ever consumed and that its predictive models would tell you which bar to go to when you arrive in a strange city. Some of this may be found helpful, but there is more than one side to it. Data that is harvested from us can be used not only to inform us but to control us. We already live in a world where around 2.5 billion of people (voluntarily, be it noted) wear a sophisticated personal tracker in the shape of a smartphone, and a similar number are networked on Facebook. The two big ethical questions are obvious: who controls such projects and who owns the data they generate?

Just as one downside of information harvesting is surveillance capitalism, another might reasonably be called surveillance communism. In March 2018 the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford published a report on the development of AI in China where, it is said, $197 billion was spent on security in 2017 and where they expected to install more than 400 million CCTV cameras by 2020. Some of what George Orwell envisaged for 1984 is already with us! What it will be like in a few years’ time is anybody's guess, although the underlying trend is perfectly clear – China is already using AI in order to achieve social control. They are gradually rolling out a social credit system in order to check on the reliability and trustworthiness of their citizens.

Much of this control is exercised by the use of highly advanced AI facial recognition techniques working on a vast database of images channeled into a central computing centre which operates millions of CCTV cameras - many used for the purposes of monitoring Chinese citizens as part of their social credit score. The Chinese government has stated that the social credit system will supposedly improve the city's business environment by preventing people with low 'integrity' from accessing the city's public services and travel network. People with a low credit score could also find it difficult to start a business or find work.

Xinjiang is a region of western China that is home to 10 million Uighur people, who are predominantly Muslim, and an increasing number of Han Chinese, who have been encouraged to settle there. The Chinese can move around without difficulty but the Uighur population is now subject to the most intense surveillance that the world has ever seen – to the extent that the capital city of Urumqi has been described as a digital fortress. There are cameras every few metres down every street and alleyway and small police stations every few hundred metres, where passing Uighurs must hand in their smartphones to have them electronically read and all information contained therein transferred to the central monitoring system to be processed by AI. A recent documentary showed pictures of QR codes pasted on the doors of houses, to be read by police scanners so that they would know who was supposed to be in the house and could then check.

It is not hard to see that such actions are taking the world towards the perfection of global tyranny: the setting up of an authoritarian world system under godless leaders whose power is secured by the most comprehensive and powerful state surveillance apparatus in history.

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