How Dictators Will Use Artificial Intelligence

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Russia’s savage, imperialistic and childish war on Ukraine has been said by democracies to be a battle between democracies and autocracies, the free world and the the unfree. It is. And it is the opening of the battle to come between two very different sets of values. The other, more subtle, nefarious, insidious and perhaps deadlier in some ways, war is that of Artificial Intelligence. Not a kinetic war, but a mental war.

The abuse of AI has the capability to destroy human agency, take away any sense of free will, devastate human rights, divide societies and turn people under its thumb into automatons to serve the elites of corrupt, autocratic and dictatorial countries.

To see how autocracies will use AI to subjugate and destroy any sense of human agency in their populations, we only have to look at how they’ve done so with social media. A prime example? The Arab Spring. As that movement began to appear across the Arab world in 2011, democracies quickly declared that dictators would fall and democracy would prevail. Egypt and Tunisia were on the precipice of becoming free. The complete opposite happened.

Arab dictatorships, from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain very quickly figured out how to use a technology designed for free speech against their populations. They employed surveillance software that could create social graphs of protestors, identify opponents and track them. Tunisia was the only country to end up holding some form of free elections, but over a decade later, is slipping back into an autocracy. Turkey too is a fragile quasi-democracy, its leader a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Then there’s China. They’ve deployed AI across so many layers of their society it’s already become somewhat dystopian. China has made public its policy regarding AI. At first read, taken in the context of a democracy, it would seem to be reasonable and consider citizens rights. When understood in the context of an authoritarian regime, it is quite frightening. Russia has a strategy, but not a policy framework, at least publicly, like China. But the public policy of any autocracy is often more for PR purposes than for actual intent.

Autocracies make a play of saying they support human rights and human agency, but the rest of the world and anyone who uses critical thinking knows this is a false flag. Being a cuddle bear is not exactly how dictators stay in power.

Autocracies will use AI for both geopolitical purposes as well as domestic. Within their country AI will be used to monitor the population, to predict potential people who may cause unrest or threats to the regime and to manipulate the population to serve the state better and more efficiently. China already uses a social points system builot upon a cultural platform of traditional Chinese norms of looking ahead by two or three generations and helping one another. Which in itself, is actually quite wonderful. When manipulated by a dictatorship, it is scary.

Russia is less sophisticated than China. Russias approach to societal governance is more about brutalism where China is much more subtle and persuasive. Russia will use AI in much more obvious ways, to surveil their citizens and crack down. Many parts of Russian culture such as the arts are incredible, their forms of government? Not so much.

All countries, whether democratic, autocratic or somewhere in between, have their elites. Russia has its oligarchs, China is party elites, democracies their billionaires. Democracies have the Rule of Law to keep elites in check. Autocracies do not. China has never had the Rule of Law. Russian pretends.

In the absence of the Rule of Law, the imperative of the autocracy is to stay in power. Globally, it is to influence other nations. Where Russia and Iran are brutalist and remain in an antiquated philosophy of war as the means of global control, China is much more subtle. Hence the Silk Road initiative. Why wage war on a nation when you can control it economically? And deploy AI to help minor dictators stay in power?

When it comes to using AI as a weapon, China is far more insidious and dangerous. Rather than use AI deployed in kinetic weapons, China understand how to use AI to manipulate and govern a society. It is teaching its vassal states this approach. Where Russia and Iran weaponise AI through kinetic means, China weaponises AI to alter minds. That is far more dangerous than kinetic warfare.

China’s method of weaponising AI is going to give the West quite a challenge in the coming years. Yes, in some ways China will undoubtedly use AI in kinetic ways, but not as much as psychological ways. Currently, the West is ill prepared for this reality.

As the West comes to realise this, they too may seek ways to use AI in the context of psychological warfare, but will be bound by greater moral and ethical concerns and the Rule of Law. This will present a difficult path to negotiate. But there are ways, options.

The biggest concern of how dictators use AI will not be in the use of kinetic weapons such as figuring out and precisely dropping munitions. It will be psychological warfare. Using AI to counter disinformation and misinformation, an issue already in play.

Dictatorships will use AI to manipulate their populations to keep them pacified and compliant. And they will use AI in acts of soft power. Kinetic uses will be at the bottom of the priority list. Most Western democracies are hesitant to accept this reality. It could give autocracies an advantage in an era where nations are increasingly re-aligning on values. We should be far less worried about robots that use AI with guns attached than AI that messes with our societies.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.