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The Chinese government has enhanced its power—and the country’s tech sector—by using AI-based facial recognition to help stifle dissent.

October 24, 2023
3 faces are made of glowing green lines and rendered in polygons. Floating polygonal shapes appear over the dark purple background.
Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT with figures from iStock

It’s often believed that authoritarian governments resist technical innovation in a way that ultimately weakens them both politically and economically. But a more complicated story emerges from a new study on how China has embraced AI-driven facial recognition as a tool of repression. 

“What we found is that in regions of China where there is more unrest, that leads to greater government procurement of facial-recognition AI,” says coauthor Martin Beraja, an MIT economist. Not only has use of the technology apparently worked to suppress dissent, but it has spurred software development. The scholars call this mutually reinforcing situation an “AI-tocracy.” 

In fact, they found, firms that were granted a government contract for facial-recognition technologies produce about 49% more software products in the two years after gaining the contract than before. “We examine if this leads to greater innovation by facial-recognition AI firms, and indeed it does,” Beraja says.

Adding it all up, the case of China indicates how autocratic governments can potentially find their political power enhanced, rather than upended, when they harness technological advances—and even generate more economic growth than they would have otherwise.

The scholars are now studying the extent to which China is exporting facial-recognition tech around the world—highlighting a mechanism through which government repression could grow globally.

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