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Chinese Technocracy Surges Ahead with AI Surveillance

So what do the reservations expressed, about “the soul” and “love,” really mean?

Recently, CBS News did a feature on Chinese venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee’s efforts to advance mass AI facial and emotion recognition. He’s funded more than 50 AI start-ups, including multi-billion-dollar companies and he made clear that he thinks that the days of Silicon Valley dominance are past. And so what now?

The interview with Scott Pelley featured some striking contrasts. Kai-Fu Lee, who studied in the United States, was befriended by a teacher who taught him English over lunch. Today, he pioneers high-tech surveillance methods to identify student emotions:

Scott Pelley: It can tell when the child is excited about math?

Kai-Fu Lee: Yes.

Scott Pelley: Or the other child is excited about poetry?

Kai-Fu Lee: Yes.

He is sold on the power of data:

China’s advantage is in the amount of data it collects. The more data, the better the AI. Just like the more you know, the smarter you are. China has four times more people than the United States who are doing nearly everything online.

Scott Pelley, “Facial and emotional recognition; how one man is advancing artificial intelligence” at 60 Minutes

We are informed by a college student that Chinese people have few concerns about privacy but then we learn:

With a pliant public, the leader of the Communist Party has made a national priority of achieving AI dominance in ten years. This is where Kai-Fu Lee becomes uncharacteristically shy. Even though he’s a former Apple, Microsoft and Google executive, he knows who’s boss in China.

Scott Pelley, “Facial and emotional recognition; how one man is advancing artificial intelligence” at 60 Minutes

Scott Pelley: President Xi has called technology the sharp weapon of the modern state. What does he mean by that?

Kai-Fu Lee: I am not an expert in interpreting his thoughts. I don’t know.

Whether expertise is required in such a case is not pursued but Kai-Fu Lee goes on to say, “As a venture capitalist, we don’t invest in this area, and we’re not studying deeply this particular problem.”

But later, the talk veers to minds and souls:

Scott Pelley: When will we know that a machine can actually think like a human?

Kai-Fu Lee: Back when I was a grad student, people said, “If machine can drive a car by itself, that’s intelligence.” Now we say that’s not enough. So, the bar keeps moving higher. I think that’s, I guess, more motivation for us to work harder. But if you’re talking about AGI, artificial general intelligence, I would say not within the next 30 years, and possibly never.

Scott Pelley: Possibly never? What’s so insurmountable?

Kai-Fu Lee: Because I believe in the sanctity of our soul. I believe there is a lot of things about us that we don’t understand. I believe there’s a lot of love and compassion that is not explainable in terms of neural networks and computation algorithms. And I currently see no way of solving them. Obviously, unsolved problems have been solved in the past. But it would be irresponsible for me to predict that these will be solved by a certain timeframe.

Kai-Fu Lee’s thought-provoking comments on the soul echo the sentiments of Jack Ma, co-founder and head of Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon. He is a self-made billionaire and, by many accounts, the richest man in China. When the soul comes up again, it is in the context of LQ, the Love Quotient (as in EQ, emotional quotient, or IQ, intelligence quotient):

LQ? Yes, it’s a thing and it has a formidable spokesperson in Alibaba Group founder and chairman Jack Ma: “If you want to be respected, you need LQ,” the leader of the Chinese internet giant said at a recent Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York.

“And what is LQ? The quotient of love, which machines never have,” said Ma.

He believes no matter how smart machines are becoming, the world’s biggest and most pressing problems will be solved not by machines, but by smart humans with the capacity for compassion, understanding and, of course, love. To Ma, this is the human secret weapon that will outthink machines and drive progress.

“A machine does not have a heart, [a] machine does not have soul, and [a] machine does not have a belief. Human being have the souls, have the belief, have the value; we are creative, we are showing that we can control the machines,” he said. Ma speaks about the need to pursue a globalization that is humane.

Marcel Schwantes, “Self-Made Billionaire Jack Ma Says You’ll Need This 1 Rare Skill to Succeed in the Age of Machines” at Inc.

But love, as they say, is a many-splendored thing. Here’s another story:

In 2005, when Alibaba was picking up momentum in its battle against eBay, Yahoo bought a 40 percent stake in the company. But Alibaba inherited a nasty skeleton in the closet: Yahoo China had previously handed over email account information to the Chinese government, which led to the arrest and incarceration of a journalist, Shi Tao, who leaked a government document instructing journalists not to report on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Shi served eight years in prison.

When asked during a televised CNN interview if he would have done the same thing assuming he was running Yahoo, Ma answered, “Yes, I would have. Whenever you do business, you have to follow the local rules and laws. Either you change the law; if you cannot change the law, follow the law.”

To be fair, Ma provided the only safe answer to that question, if “safe” means acceptable to the Chinese Communist Party.

Brendon Wong, “Alibaba’s Dark Side: Censoring Customers” at The Daily Beast

Ma also said in 2017 that China benefits from the stability of a one-party system. He seems comfortable with China’s big data police (“it can help pinpoint terrorist activity”) but he wishes his government would stick to governing, by which he seems to mean, not stifling innovation. And then there was the data-sharing scandal: “‘There’s no way to refuse’: China’s Alibaba under fire over use of customer data.”

One way to understand all this is, no one alive has any idea how to wring the life out of the human spirit and turn it into a commodity, using high-tech methods. Because by now someone would have done so. Instead, we talk of the soul.

Still, both Kai-Fu Lee and Jack Ma entrust governments and corporations with freedom, but cannot trust souls with it.

See also: On the soul: The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly (Michael Egnor)

On displacement by technology: Jay Richards: Creative freedom, not robots, is the future of work. In an information economy, there will be a place where the human person is at the very center

A chilling snippet on mass surveillance in China. China is helping other countries restrict their citizens’ internet, while shunning the U.S.


China’s AI package for Africa includes mass surveillance technology Africa sees development aid; China sees an expanding African database

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Chinese Technocracy Surges Ahead with AI Surveillance