Will Chinese Tech Make Democracy Irrelevant?

My high school history teacher Dr. Cohen once told me, as we shuffled along the school cafeteria line, that computers would one day make socialism viable. Given that the Soviet collapse had already happened, and that Super Nintendo still seemed vastly more magical than anything you could put on your desk, this seemed far-fetched.


But his point was that one day, in principle, computers could amass enough detailed knowledge about people's needs and living patterns that governments could use them to run a planned economy efficiently. With enough data and computing power, you'd no longer need to rely on prices and markets to match up people with the things they want and need.

Almost thirty years later, computers are helping a Leninist state to maintain power, but in a very different way than Dr. Cohen had imagined.

China, now the world's second largest economy, has long since accepted the need to allow market forces to fuel its economy. But after all these years, the great question remains: As China grows wealthier and its people expect more from their government, can the Communist Party maintain its chokehold on political power? Isn't democracy still the least bad way for governments to understand what citizens want and to deliver those things efficiently?

Beijing is now betting that technologies like artificial intelligence and big data analysis will not only help the state stave off demand for democracy, but make democracy itself irrelevant for meeting the needs of its citizens.

The idea is to create a nation in which every person, company, road, bridge, river, air particle, hospital, school, and police station is monitored by sensors, cameras, or data hoovers. And then to feed that data into AI systems, developed by China's increasingly capable homegrown tech industry, that can help the government do to three things:

  1. Improve people's quality of life by using massive data sets and artificial intelligence to make roads, rails, hospitals, schools, and other public services run better and more responsively – without ever having to open up to the mess of democratic accountability or oversight. This might look good to those people around the world who believe democratic governments can barely tie their own shoes.
  2. Keep order by controlling the movement of "threatening" people and ideas. This is much easier to do via technology and data analysis than by sending spooks out to spy on people. This idea will appeal to governments looking to create the kind of stability that doesn't demand power-sharing.
  3. Create incentives for people to follow the rules by using technology to limit the access of lawbreaking citizens to important services. That might appeal to both law-abiding citizens and political officials.

It's a huge gamble, but control is a central motivation of the government's bid to become a 21st century AI superpower. That ambition isn't just about global power, it's about maintaining domestic stability. Can Beijing pull it off? No human can yet answer that question. But Dr. Cohen and I are watching closely.

Microsoft has a long-standing commitment to child online protection. First and foremost, as a technology company, it has a responsibility to create software, devices and services that have safety features built in from the outset. Last week, in furtherance of those commitments, Microsoft shared a grooming detection technique, code name "Project Artemis," by which online predators attempting to lure children for sexual purposes can be detected, addressed and reported. Developed in collaboration with The Meet Group, Roblox, Kik and Thorn, this technique builds off Microsoft patented technology and will be made freely available to qualified online service companies that offer a chat function.

Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia for twenty years, but he has a problem: his current presidential term ends in 2024, and the constitution prevents him from running for re-election then.

As a result, the question of what he'll do in 2024 has been on the minds of Russia's oligarchs, spooks, bureaucrats, and a lot of ordinary folks, as well. After all, over the past two decades, Putin has made himself, for better and for worse, the indispensable arbiter, boss, and glue of Russia's sprawling and corrupted system of government. As the current speaker of Russia's legislature once said, "Without Putin, there is no Russia." Not as we currently know it, no.

More

It's been nine years since Libya's long-time despot Muammar Qaddafi was killed in a violent uprising, bringing the oil-rich country to the brink of civil war. That conflict entered a new stage last year when violence between warring factions competing for territory intensified around Tripoli, Libya's capital, leading to the displacement of some 300,000 civilians. In recent weeks, fighting has intensified again, and ceasefire talks have failed. Here's a look at who's who and how we got here.

More

India's supreme court to weigh in on citizenship law – India's southern state of Kerala filed a lawsuit in India's Supreme Court, claiming that a contentious new citizenship law that's caused nationwide protests is discriminatory and violates India's secular constitution. Kerala is the first state to legally challenge the new law backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party, which opens a path to Indian citizenship for migrants from neighboring countries— provided that they are not Muslims. In addition to the Kerala action, at least some of the 60 petitions filed by individuals and political parties are also likely to be heard by the court next week. Amid a climate of deepening uncertainty for India's 200 million Muslims, we're watching closely to see how the court rules.

More

Vladimir Putin has held power for twenty years now, alternating between the prime minister's seat and the presidency twice. He has made himself so indispensable to Russia's political system that even the speaker of the legislature has mused that "without Putin, there is no Russia." The constitution says he can't serve as president again after his current term ends in 2024 – but he'll find a way to keep power somehow. As he starts to lay those plans, here's a look back at his approval rating over the past two decades.