The Rise of an “AI-tocracy”: Unveiling a New Age | MIT News

**China’s AI-driven Facial Recognition Technology and Political Control**

Many observers believe that authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to resistance against innovation. However, a new study led by an MIT professor suggests the opposite. In China, the government has successfully used artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology to suppress dissent and protests, which has in turn stimulated the development of better AI-based technology. This cycle of increased deployment of AI technology, known as an “AI-tocracy,” not only quells dissent but also enhances the country’s innovation capacity. The study, titled “AI-tocracy,” was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and conducted by researchers from MIT, Harvard University, and the London School of Economics.

**Studying the Relationship Between Unrest and Facial Recognition AI**

To analyze the relationship between political unrest and the use of AI facial recognition technology in China, the researchers collected and examined various types of evidence from the past decade. They used data from the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) Project to record instances of political unrest in China between 2014 and 2020. The study identified 9,267 incidents of unrest during this period.

Furthermore, the researchers studied the procurement contracts issued by the Chinese government between 2013 and 2019, specifically focusing on contracts for facial recognition AI services and high-resolution video cameras used for public security. They found that after a period of public unrest, local governments significantly increased their procurement of these tools.

**Suppressing Dissent Through Facial Recognition Technology**

The researchers then explored whether the use of facial recognition technology effectively suppressed dissent. While they could not directly estimate the effect of the technology on political unrest, they found a correlation between weather conditions and protest levels in different areas of China. In regions that had heavily invested in facial recognition technology, the research showed that weather conditions conducive to unrest were less likely to lead to protests compared to areas that had not made the same investments.

The findings suggest that facial recognition technology is indeed effective in quelling political unrest. The study also accounted for factors like relative wealth levels that might influence AI technology investments and still concluded that the use of facial recognition technology was a response to past protests and contributed to reducing further protest levels.

**The Impact on China’s Technology Sector**

The researchers also investigated the impact of increased demand for AI technology on China’s tech sector. They discovered that the government’s use of facial recognition tools stimulated the growth of the country’s technology sector. Firms that were granted procurement contracts for facial recognition technologies produced about 49 percent more software products in the two years following the contract than before.

The data from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology indicated that AI-driven tools did not crowd out other forms of high-tech innovation. The study suggests that autocratic governments can reach a near-equilibrium state in which their political power is enhanced by harnessing technological advances.

**Implications for Government Forms and Economic Growth**

These findings have significant implications for government forms and economic growth. While previous research has shown that democratic institutions and rights-granting policies promote economic growth by fostering better conditions for innovation, this study demonstrates that autocratic institutions can generate more growth by utilizing AI technologies.

The study does not contradict existing research but instead uncovers another pathway through which authoritarian governments can enhance their power and stimulate growth. It highlights the potential of AI technologies as tools for repression and their usefulness to autocratic regimes.

**Expert Insights and Future Research**

Experts in the field of AI applications in society commend the study for its valuable contribution. They appreciate its exploration of the interaction between technology, economic success, and political power. The research is considered pioneering in AI and political economy and is expected to gain greater importance as AI technology continues to diffuse.

The authors of the study are continuing their research on related aspects of this issue. One forthcoming paper will examine the extent to which China is exporting advanced facial recognition technologies worldwide, shedding light on a mechanism through which government repression could grow globally.

**Funding and Acknowledgments**

The study received support from the U.S. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the Harvard Data Science Initiative, and the British Academy’s Global Professorships program.

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