Pandemic, AI, and end of Democracy

internet surveillance

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
― George Orwell, 1984

The year 2020 is going to be recorded by future historians as a watershed moment in the history of mankind. The coronavirus pandemic is causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, causing unprecedented economic devastation on global proportions, forcing lockdowns across much of the world, and shaking societies and the assumptions on which they were operating until recently. The health crisis is now slamming headlong into a protracted global economic depression. But going forward, its most remarkable legacy will be the way that the pandemic dovetails with another major worldwide disruption of the recent times—the ascent, and widespread adoption of digital surveillance techniques enabled by artificial intelligence (AI). We need to understand the ongoing conflicts between governments and between tech companies for the control of data in this background. Most people whether they are in the developed world or developing world are just faintly aware, or not at all aware, of the ascent of AI and its potential impact on their lives. The technological disruptions which have been gathering momentum for the last few years have now confronting humankind with the hardest trials it has experienced in the recent past.

The pandemic has created a moment in history when the governments can implement and advance ideas that were touted by the blue-eyed boys of the Silicon Valley tech companies for so long. Something resembling a high tech shock treatment is beginning to emerge. As the bodies still pile up, the future is being re-imagined, repackaged, and delivered in warp speed. The weeks and months of lockdown of entire countries is not seen as a painful necessity to save precious lives, but as a living laboratory for creating a permanent — and highly profitable — future. The pandemic has presented the governments and the big capital with a golden opportunity to finally tame human beings for good. We are at risk of becoming like domesticated animals confined in high-tech industrial farms doing nothing but produce enormous amount of data for their masters.

In this future, our homes are not imagined as exclusive personal spaces but, via high-speed digital connectivity, as our schools, our hospitals, our gyms, our primary entertainment venues, and, if determined by the state, our jails. This is a future in which, for the privileged, almost everything is home delivered, either virtually via streaming, or physically via driverless vehicle or drone. It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors, and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards (under the guise of virus control) and has non-existent or little mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence” but is actually held together by millions of invisible workers tucked away in warehouses, cloud kitchens, industrial farms, meat-processing plants, data centers, semiconductor fabrication plants, lithium mines, and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation. It’s a future in which our every action, our every thought, our every relationship is trackable, traceable, and data-mineable by unprecedented partnerships between governments and tech giants.

In the pre-COVID world, this precise app-driven, gig-based future was being sold to us in the name of convenience. But many of us had concerns. About the privacy, data security, and quality of telehealth and online classrooms. About driverless cars mowing down pedestrians and drones smashing packages (and sometimes people). About location tracking and cash-free commerce wiping out our privacy and reinforcing racial and gender discrimination. About unprincipled social media platforms poisoning our information ecology and our kids’ mental health. About “smart cities” filled with sensors and cameras superseding local government. About the good jobs, these technologies wiped out. About the bad jobs, they mass-produced.

And most of all, we had concerns about the extreme concentration of power and wealth by a handful of tech companies that are threatening democracy and evading all responsibility for the unrepairable damage they have done to the fields they now dominate, whether media, retail, or transportation. Now, against an agonizing backdrop of mass death, it is being sold to us on the questionable promise that these technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Fears of machines pushing people out of the job market are, nothing new, and in the past technological advancements proved to be creating new jobs in place of the obsolete ones. But artificial intelligence is increasingly proving old assumptions wrong. The old human-machine competition was mainly in manual skills. Now machines are making human workers economically irrelevant with cognitive skills. And we don’t know of any third kind of skill in which humans will always have an edge. Without any economic value, labor might also come to lose their political power, whatever little they already have. What is more worrying is the fact that the same technologies that make billions of people economically useless also make them easier to monitor and control.

Even before the pandemic, numerous countries around the world, including several democracies, were busy building unprecedented systems of surveillance. For example, Israeli occupied West Bank is a working prototype for a total-surveillance state. All phone calls, social media interactions, and travel or movement data of Palestinians are likely to be monitored by Israeli microphones, cameras, drones, or spyware. Sophisticated algorithms help the Israeli Defense Forces to analyze the gathered data, pinpoint and neutralize what they consider to be potential threats. The Palestinians may administer some towns and villages in the West Bank, but they do not hold any real power as the Israelis command the sky, the airwaves, and cyberspace. It, therefore, takes surprisingly few Israeli soldiers to effectively control even the minute aspects of the lives of the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

The Silicon Valley giants had been aggressively lobbying and running public relations campaigns pushing a dystopian vision of society that governments all over the world are now building as a response to the pandemic. At the heart of this vision is the seamless integration of government machinery with a handful of tech giants. This means public-funded schools, hospitals, police, and military all outsourcing many of their core functions to private tech companies. The cyber utopianists like Eric Schmidt of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft call for exponential increases in government spending on research into artificial intelligence and on tech-enabling infrastructure like 5G. What is interesting is the fact that these investments would directly benefit the companies in which they themselves have extensive stakes.

Eric Schmidt has been pushing the argument that since the Chinese government is willing to spend limitless public money building the infrastructure of high-tech surveillance, while allowing Chinese tech companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent to pocket the profits from commercial applications, the U.S.’s dominant position in the global economy is on the verge of collapsing. He also argues that “surveillance is one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for Al” and further, that “mass surveillance is a killer application for deep learning.”Until very recently, public resistance against these companies was surging. Politicians in the western world including the US were openly discussing breaking up big tech companies. Local opposition was raging against Amazon for its plans for a New York headquarters. Google’s many surveillance projects were always faced with regulatory hurdles, and Google faced opposition to its collaboration with governments for surveillance tech with military applications both from public and from its own workers. Facebook’s Zuckerberg was grilled by skeptical US lawmakers on privacy concerns, election interference, and free speech.

In short, democracy with its inconvenient public scrutiny, civil society engagements, and institutional frameworks was seen as the single biggest obstacle to the vision these tech giants was advancing. Now, in the midst of the carnage of this ongoing pandemic, and with the fear and uncertainty about the future, these companies clearly see their opportunity to do away with all that democratic engagement. The Silicon Valley tech giants are now leveling the playing field with their Chinese counterparts, who have the luxury of functioning without being hampered by intrusions of either labor or civil rights.

The race to accumulate data is already on, In the global equity market, the leadership is U.S. equities, and within this large-cap U.S. tech and the so-called FAANG stocks. The 5 most valuable companies in the world are increasingly all AI companies. Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (Alphabet). In China, the same situation, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent the so-called BAT are all AI companies. Alibaba and Tencent in terms of market capitalization are the most valuable Chinese companies and both are cutting edge AI companies. In 2017, the Chinese Communist Party announced plans to be the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. The announcement caused considerable uneasiness in the U.S. and elsewhere about the scope of China’s aspirations and the extent to which the communist party might use AI to tighten surveillance control over its citizens and develop more sophisticated military capabilities.

The Australian government has already contracted with Amazon to store the data for its controversial coronavirus tracking app. Amazon is partnering with the Canadian government to deliver medical equipment, raising doubts about why it bypassed the public postal service. The government of India with the opaqueness and ever-increasing scope of its coronavirus contact tracing app is building a sophisticated surveillance state in gigantic proportions. Here also Amazon Web Services is contracted to store the data of hundreds of millions of people. Gates’s foundation with its charity giving and Microsoft with its technology is influencing public health and education policy of countries across the world undermining democracy and public engagement. Bill Gates and Google boys have more say on the way our children learn and setting our public health priorities than we as citizens. Citizens are increasingly becoming irrelevant in this new technological era.

But considering the sheer volume of data the Chinese tech giants are managing, it appears that as of now BAT is winning the race. With $504B valuation Tencent is the largest gaming company in the world. 60% of all mobile time in China is spent on Tencent apps. It is also best known for creating WeChat. They have strategic stakes in Snapchat, Reddit, Tesla, etc. Alibaba with a $470B valuation moves more merchandise in China than Amazon and eBay do in the rest of the world combined. It is also the owner of Alipay, a payments app that is functionally the world ‘s largest digital bank. Alibaba also owns India’s largest payment app Paytm. Alipay’s Yu’e Bao savings feature is the biggest money market fund in the world at $233B (passing JP Morgan)! Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital) is piloting Alibaba ‘s City Brain smart city system for mass surveillance. Bytedance owns TikTok, the fastest growing social video app in the world. The ridesharing giant Didi with roughly 1.5x the volume of Uber and Lyft combined call themselves “the world’s largest transportation platform.” Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are all invested in Didi. Tencent and Didi have significant stakes in the Indian ridesharing app, Ola. DJI is the first Chinese company to build a globally dominant consumer brand, running away with a 72% share in the consumer drone market. DJI’s Mavic drone is being issued by the Israeli Defense Force for recon.

Technology with its powerful tools can positively transform the lives of millions of people, but not every problem has a technological solution. And the trouble with outsourcing key decisions about reimagining our societies to men like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt is that they have spent their lives promoting the belief that every humanly imaginable problem has a technological fix. For them, the pandemic has provided a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the respect and power that they feel have been unjustly denied.

So far, many of these companies whether Chinese or American, have acted as “attention merchants” by capturing our attention with free information, services, and entertainment, and then they resell our attention to advertisers. But it’s not just about selling ads. By capturing our attention they are actually accumulating immense amounts of data about us, which are worth more than any advertising revenue. We aren’t their customers—we are their product. Ordinary people are happy to give away their most valuable asset—their personal data—in exchange for free services and entertainment. It will, in turn, lead to a point where they have to depend on the network to make everyday decisions, and even for their health and physical survival. Finally, people will find it extremely difficult or even impossible to try to block the flow of data. Many of us are already experiencing this on a personal level, what we are going to see in the future is an extreme version of this.

The ideals of liberty and equality are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove short-lived. The liberal ideas have already begun to lose credibility. Politics have grown more tribal and sectarian; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a tendency for demagoguery and autocracy. There are complex reasons for this political shift, but the effects of the current technological developments on this shift can’t be ignored. The technology that favored and sustained democracy for long is becoming more and more obsolete, and the future developments in artificial intelligence might mark the end of democracy as we know it.

New technologies will continue to emerge, which may encourage the decentralization rather than the concentration of information and power. Blockchain technology is currently touted as a possible counterweight to centralized power. But blockchain technology is still in the rudimentary form, and we don’t yet know whether it will indeed counterbalance the centralizing tendencies of AI. It’s worth to note that the Internet, too, was hyped in its early days as a libertarian panacea that would free people from all forms of tyranny—but has now become the most powerful tool at the hands of authoritarian regimes.

Collectivization or state ownership of data could offer one solution; it would certainly restrain the tech giants competing for world domination. But history suggests that handing over the keys of information gateways in the hands of overmighty governments will be the most foolish thing to do. The only way to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite (whether authoritarian governments or corporations) is to regulate the ownership of data. Our scientists, our philosophers, our lawyers, and even our poets need to turn their attention to this big question: How do you regulate the ownership of data? Whether or not we would be able to finally democratize data will have farreaching implications on human beings as a species.

Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly attain their human potential. Like the inventions of vaccines, artificial insemination, and growth hormones led to the development of factory farming of broiler chicken and industrial dairying, the novel coronavirus can usher in a new era of intensive rearing of domesticated human beings with no trait of natural attributes like libertarian thinking or any thinking at all. As the American jurist, William O. Douglas famously said: “Nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

Bibin Manuel was born and raised in Kerala and is an Engineer by training. Currently, he lives in New Delhi, He writes occasionally in Malayalam for news portals like Mathrubhumi, Azhimukham etc. He writes on topics such as Global Poverty, Technology, Human Rights, Free Speech, and Environment. Email: [email protected]



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