Xi seems to have used Xinjiang as a laboratory to fine-tune the sensory and analytical powers of his new digital panopticon before expanding its reach across the mainland. It could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom. They measure height and take a blood sample.
Until recently, it was difficult to imagine how China could integrate all of these data into a single surveillance system, but no longer. Only a century and a half ago—yesterday, in the memory of a 5,year-old civilization—Hong Xiuquan, a quasi-Christian mystic converted by Western missionaries, launched the Taiping Rebellion, an apocalyptic year campaign that may have killed more people than the First World War.
They speed dating Atlantic IA suburbs mass protests and a smattering of suicide attacks against Chinese police. It could flag loiterers, or homeless people, or rioters. This techno-political moment has been long in the making. Not all of the surveillance is digital. The same system tracks them as they move through smaller checkpoints, at banks, parks, and schools.
When Uighurs reach the edge of their neighborhood, an automated system takes note. City Brain would be especially useful in a pandemic. If they do not, police interrogators are dispatched to the doorsteps of their relatives and friends. Uighurs who were spared the camps now make up the most intensely surveilled population on Earth. Data from sensor-laden trash cans could make waste pickup more timely and efficient. Purchasing prayer rugs online, storing digital copies of Muslim books, and downloading sermons from a favorite imam are all risky activities.
China has spent all but a few centuries of its 5,year history at the vanguard of information technology. Many of its proposed uses are benign technocratic functions. City Brain is, as the name suggests, a kind of automated nerve center, capable of synthesizing data streams from a multitude of sensors distributed throughout an urban environment.
InBelgian officials on a trade mission noticed that their mobile data were being intercepted by pop-up antennae outside their Beijing hotel. It could make use of the cameras that Chinese police hide in traffic cones, and those strapped to officers, both uniformed and plainclothes. Another company, Hanwang, claims that its facial-recognition technology can recognize mask wearers 95 percent of the time. Its population is extremely online.
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During the initial coronavirus outbreak, Chinese social-media apps promoted hotlines where people could report those suspected of hiding symptoms. The police are required to note when Uighurs deviate from any of their normal behavior patterns. The lucky Uighurs who are able to travel abroad—many have had their passports confiscated—are advised to return quickly. He looked serene, as though satisfied with having freed China from the Western yoke. Anyone in any kind of danger could summon help by waving a hand in a distinctive way that would be instantly recognized by ever-vigilant computer vision.
Once Xi perfects this system in Xinjiang, no technological limitations will prevent him from extending AI surveillance across China. Some of these will enjoy broad public support: City Brain could be trained to spot lost children, or luggage abandoned by tourists or terrorists. They could tap the cameras attached to ride-share cars, or the self-driving vehicles that may soon replace them: Automated vehicles will be covered in a whole host of sensors, including some that will take in information much richer than 2-D video.
To visit China on sensitive business is to risk being barraged with cyberattacks and malware. Others are sterilized by the state. Any emergency data-sharing arrangements made behind closed doors during the pandemic could become permanent. I visited the institute on a rainy morning in the summer of In my pocket, I had a burner phone; in my backpack, a computer wiped free of data—standard precautions for Western journalists in China. Their database wants to know if Uighurs start leaving their home through the back door instead of the front. Xi has appropriated the phrase sharp eyeswith all its historical resonances, as his chosen name for the AI-powered surveillance cameras that will soon span China.
Mao Zedong loomed large in his characteristic four-pocket suit. They record voices and swab DNA. Some Uighurs have even been forced to participate in experiments that mine genetic data, to see how DNA produces distinctly Uighurlike chins and ears. Many were tortured and made to perform slave labor. City Brain could automate these processes, or integrate its data streams. Even an innocent digital association—being in a group text with a recent mosque attendee, for instance—could result in detention.
All of these data points can be time-stamped and geo-tagged. It wants to know if they spend less time talking to neighbors than they used to.
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The data streams that could be fed into a City Brain—like system are essentially unlimited. They can scan chat logs for Quran verses, and look for Arabic script in memes and other image files. He wants to build an all-seeing digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time.
The nanny apps work in tandem with the police, who spot-check phones at checkpoints, scrolling through recent calls and texts. Staying off social media altogether is no solution, because digital inactivity itself can raise suspicions. But police have since forced them to install nanny apps on their new phones. Its work is part of a grand AI strategy that Xi has laid out in a series of speeches akin to those John F.
And he wants China to achieve AI supremacy by Artificial intelligence has applications in nearly every human domain, from the instant translation of spoken language to early viral-outbreak detection. The emergence of an AI-powered authoritarian bloc led by China could warp the geopolitics of this century.
Its algorithms could, for instance, count people and cars, to help with red-light timing and subway-line planning. Next to him was a fuzzy black-and-white shot of Deng Xiaoping visiting the institute in his later years, after his economic reforms had set China on a course to reclaim its traditional global role as a great power. In addition to footage from the 1. Earpiece-wearing police officers could be directed to the scene by an AI voice assistant.
The state could force retailers to provide data from in-store cameras, which can now detect the direction of your gaze across a shelf, and which could soon see around corners by reading shadows. China already has hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras in place.
Precious little public space would be unwatched. It logged the date, time, and serial s—all traceable to individual users—of Wi-Fi-enabled phones that passed within its reach. China is an ideal setting for an experiment in total surveillance. In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources—travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases—to predict political resistance before it happens.
Electricity use is monitored by an algorithm for unusual use, which could indicate an unregistered resident. Near its center is the Institute of Automation, a sleek silvery-blue building surrounded by camera-studded poles.
The panopticon is already here
Police will likely use the pandemic as a pretext to take still more data from Uighur bodies. And Chinese AI companies began making networked facial-recognition helmets for police, with built-in infrared fever detectors, capable of sending data to the government. Police are known to rip unauthorized children away from their parents, who are then detained. Out in the countryside, villagers line up to have their faces scanned, from multiple angles, by private firms in exchange for cookware.
Ina cybersecurity activist hacked into a facial-recognition system that appeared to be connected to the government and was synthesizing a surprising combination of data streams.
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The country is home to more than 1 billion mobile phones, all chock-full of sophisticated sensors. Each one logs search-engine queries, websites visited, and mobile payments, which are ubiquitous. Mobile carriers also sent municipal governments lists of people who had come to their city from Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected.
Such measures have reduced the birthrate in some regions of Xinjiang more than 60 percent in three years. Uighur women are also made to endure pregnancy checks. More than 1 million Uighurs were disappeared into concentration camps.
Along with Sumer and Mesoamerica, it was one of three places where writing was independently invented, allowing information to be stored outside the human brain. The Chinese Communist Party has long been suspicious of religion, and not just as a result of Marxist influence.
The institute is a basic research facility. In the second century a. But City Brain and its successor technologies will also enable new forms of integrated surveillance. Data began to circulate even faster a few centuries later, when Tang-dynasty artisans perfected woodblock printing, a mass-information technology that helped administer a huge and growing state.
Over the next few years, those technologies will be refined and integrated into all-encompassing surveillance systems that dictators can plug and play. Some are forced to have abortions, or get an IUD inserted. American policy makers from across the political spectrum are concerned about this scenario.