Dug Campbell

The Inevitable Craziness of Surveillance, AI and Social Credit

Jaywalking is a funny thing. It doesn’t exist in the UK – in this country, pedestrians are expected to make their own judgements about whether or not it’s safe to cross a road. That’s pretty different to the US where in some cities, you can end up getting fined or detained for the heinous crime of, er, trying to cross a road on foot.

China has a similar approach to such blatant evildoing in public. Although the response is slightly different – hose down the miscreant to teach him or her a lesson….

Whilst amusing, it pales into insignificance when placed alongside the general direction of travel across China as it continues its journey deeper into a far darker dystopian and authoritarian future. It’s estimated that the country now has in excess of 200 million surveillance cameras tracking every move of its citizens.

It’s not simply the death of privacy and the chilling effect that such a burgeoning all-seeing infrastructure has on the freedom of individuals that’s the concern here.  It’s that this is far from being simply an ideological battleground. Instead, it’s reality today – as China has already introduced the Social Credit System which means that people with low scores can be prevented from travelling on planes and trains.

In other words, we’re seeing technology being used for totally different reasons. Instead of helping individuals in the pursuit of freedom, technology is being deployed as a system of control.

It’s turning into a one-sided battle as the Chinese government strives to manage society in a completely new way by pursuing a form of algorithmic governance.

For a taster, read this from the New York Times:-

“Last summer, the police put up cameras linked to facial recognition technology and a big, outdoor screen. Photos of lawbreakers were displayed alongside their names and government I.D. numbers. People were initially excited to see their faces on the board, said Guan Yue, a spokeswoman, until propaganda outlets told them it was punishment.

“If you are captured by the system and you don’t see it, your neighbours or colleagues will, and they will gossip about it,” she said. “That’s too embarrassing for people to take.”

Now if that doesn’t remind you of 1984, then I don’t know what will. Just watch this video – is this a system that you would live in out of choice?

I originally started this post to talk about one story in particular – the fact that cameras in Ningbo incorrectly captured the face of a famous successful CEO pictured on the side of a passing bus and interpreted it as an act of illegal jaywalking by her.

Cue much hilarity.  Until you start to consider the consequences. AI is still a long way from being reliable when it comes to these type of tasks. And the potential damage caused by such mistakes accelerates with every day that passes .

It’s rare to find an issue where you honestly can’t see both sides. Where even if you can’t agree with the other point of view as such, you can still find some form of merit in the opposing position. But I’m afraid this issue is one of those for me. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this develops over the next 5 to 10 years. But for all the wrong reasons.