The fifth Vertical Atlas event focuses on the implications of AI developments for Chinese city management, political and economic governance, as well as its place in the current Chinese cultural imagination. With presentations by Harvard University anthropologist Shuang Lu Frost and Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chen), renowned sci-fi writer.
The most competitive domain in global technology is the development of AI. Many believe that it holds the key to economic, political and technological dominance for the parties managing to wield its power. China stands at the forefront of these developments, in direct competition with various states and tech companies, and is developing a specific, Chinese version of manmade intelligence (a literal translation of the Mandarin phrase for AI) based on the unique techno-political circumstances in the Chinese geo zone.
China is one of the only states to have achieved a near complete integration of state and national cloud-tech platforms - Baidou, Alibaba, Tencent - enabling the mass gathering of data to train AI systems at all levels of society. The resulting governing infrastructure is implemented on all scales of the Chinese digital ecology, and aims to cover material as well as social domains. It incorporates land based and off-shore mining for raw ores and the processing of e-waste, and at the same time aims to bring about a renewable energy economy that is able to cope with the exponential growth of the energy needs of computation.
Chinese cities are continuously being built and rebuilt in an attempt to integrate the latest digital technologies in their infrastructures. Several cities already host a wealth of bots and machine learning systems, capturing data from nested sensors and processors scattered in the urban environment, exemplified by the Alibaba City Brain project.
State sovereignty over cyberspace is implemented through the Golden Shield technology and the Great Cannon, which control what kind of information is accessible, when and where and to whom, in China and beyond, and which manifest as a globally present ‘Great Firewall of China’. Within this digital environment, the behaviour of individuals is both measured and influenced by a variety of social ranking systems that contribute data to, as well as implement, the development of different AI solutions.
For certain western sensibilities China is rapidly approaching an ideal type of digital dystopia. Without downplaying the extent to which sophisticated information technologies in China are used to exert control over society, it is also important to recognise how different cultural values relating to the role of the individual and the morals of intelligence shape the role, use and perception of digital technologies.