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Can a Totalitarian State Advance AI?

China vs. Hong Kong provides a test case

An important mainland Chinese university is dismissing freedom of thought. From a mainstream wire service story that unintentionally reads like a satire site:

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Changes to the charter of one of China’s top universities that dropped the phrase “freedom of thought” and added a pledge to follow the Communist Party’s leadership have sparked heated debate and a rare act of student defiance.

The changes to the charter of Fudan University in Shanghai, considered one of China’s more liberal institutions, came to light on Tuesday when the education ministry said it had approved alterations for three universities.

Within hours, the Fudan amendments were trending on the Weibo social media platform with one hashtag viewed more than a million times.

Change to Chinese university’s charter dropping ‘freedom of thought’ stirs debate” at Reuters

Those critical posts were quickly removed from the Chinese social media giant.

We are informed that the new charter says that the university would “weaponise the minds of teachers and students using Xi Jinping’s socialism ideology with characteristics of China in the new era” (Reuters), which is interpreted as more direct government control in suppressing new ideas.

This incident, it turns out, is not a parody. Its reality helps us understand what independent-minded Hongkongers call the dread that lies ahead when China takes over in 2047.

China’s morph into a total surveillance state naturally recalls British novelist and political commentator George Orwell (1903–1950). Despite his premature death from tuberculosis in 1950, Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, understood how totalitarians would use new technologies to maintain control. For example, in 1984, one of his characters minds the machine that churns out endless streams of trashy novels for an undiscerning public. That surely presages the mindless production of promotional copy today, literally written by machines.

Orwell identified two characteristics of a totalitarian state that offer insight into its central intellectual weaknesses:

First, successful modern technological cultures depend on a high level of individual freedom of thought, as the digital revolution demonstrates. He wrote: “Modern literature is essentially an individual thing. It is either the truthful expression of what one man thinks and feels, or it is nothing.” But he adds, “As I say, we take this notion for granted, and yet as soon as one puts it into words one realizes how literature is menaced. For this is the age of the totalitarian state, which does not and probably cannot allow the individual any freedom what ever.”

Whereas Shanghai University is onside with no freedom of thought, international human rights day (December 8, 2019) brought 800,000 Hongkongers onto the streets again. One observer told us, “I love this vid. Hong Kong people never lack creative ideas to express their feelings and thoughts”:

The animal heads frustrate current total surveillance technology.

In this next one, the mockery of the totalitarian state is deliberate. Note that the cameraman, whose shirt is blazoned “1984,” is laughing as he photographs mass-produced pig’s head masks for “security”:

Here’s a more sobering BBC report, emphasizing the underlying dedication: “We will never give up in the face of police violence.” Many have been changed by the experience of protesting totalitarianism; they understand freedom of thought more deeply.

But what of the young people already steeped in the influence of mainland China? They offer a considerable contrast, principally in their unwillingness to even consider new or different ideas:

By contrast, young mainland Chinese people must spend their lives under constant surveillance, demonstrating by every move that they aren’t a threat to the established order. That situation does not favor the incubation of new ideas.

One contact offers, “I’ve spoken with university students both in China and Hong Kong. There is such a difference. University students in China are walking robots. They know their subjects but they lack critical thinking. I love the Hong Kong young people; they think for themselves.”

A second characteristic George Orwell noted was a key difference between totalitarianism and “all the orthodoxies of the past, either in Europe or in the East.”

East or West, traditional belief systems are perennial because they are fixed on eternity, not present circumstances. A faithful adherent should believe the same thing today as he would have believed forty years ago or four millennia ago. But totalitarianism is different: “The peculiarity of the totalitarian state is that though it controls thought, it does not fix it. It sets up unquestionable dogmas, and it alters them from day to day. It needs the dogmas, because it needs absolute obedience from its subjects, but cannot avoid the changes, which are dictated by the needs of power politics. It declared itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth …”

(In a photo taken last August, a masked Hongkonger uses a tablet to quietly broadcast a message for freedom while standing outside Tai Po train station. The message reads “How can you be silent in front such absurd government?”)

One outcome is that attitudes, values, and beliefs are expected to morph rapidly. For example, a man who saved thousands of baby girls from trash dumps in China during the One Child Policy years and brought them to orphanages spent years in prison for “human trafficking.” Yet now, we are told, the government pressure is now entirely in the other direction: “An editorial in the Communist Party paper People’s Daily informed couples: ‘Not wanting to have kids is just a lifestyle of passively giving in to society’s pressures.’” An observer notes, “One marvels at the shameless about-face of a regime whose manipulation of the family is an egregious assault on human rights.”

Shameless? No, let’s leave shame aside for a moment and tackle a more basic problem: mindless. People who are expected to spin like tops over timeless truths are not well placed to initiate great new ideas. They would find suppressing new ideas much easier to handle.

The pursuit of objective truth that is essential to science is of no use to the total state. Thus totalitarianism’s central weakness is that its mindset does not promote the qualities needed for sustained creativity.

For AI, a sobering prospect emerges: Despite the claims of futurists, machines are not creative. They only enhance human creativity. The spread of totalitarianism worldwide through Chinese influence will likely lead to the spread of total AI surveillance but not of groundbreaking new AI ideas. Those ideas depend on an intellectually freer climate.

If an AI winter is indeed coming, as many predict, totalitarianism could prolong it indefinitely.


Note: The quotations are from George Orwell, “Literature and Totalitarianism” First published: Listener, (Broadcast on the BBC Overseas Service). — GB, London. — June 19, 1941. Reprinted: ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’. — 1968.

See also: Weighing the costs of China’s high tech power: Western nations like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada must weigh Beijing’s demands carefully


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can a Totalitarian State Advance AI?