China is the world’s leading exporter of facial recognition technology, according to a study conducted by researchers from Harvard and MIT. The study aimed to elucidate the ramifications of the AI revolution and what it means for such technology to be exported from a global power like China. They found that China is more likely than other countries to export AI technology to other countries. China also focuses on exporting facial recognition to countries with weak democracies that are experiencing social unrest and upheaval. Political motivation might be driving such trades. The authors write,
The Chinese government’s demand for surveillance and political control translates into more exports of AI. Moreover, our finding that autocrats and would-be autocrats abroad demand surveillance technology from China suggest that political factors may affect the direction of AI innovation.”Exporting the surveillance state via trade in AI (brookings.edu)
Because AI facial recognition is associated with mass surveillance, China’s exports are more directed toward countries with autocratic political interests. Will Knight covered the report in a Wired article, writing,
Face recognition technology has numerous practical applications, including unlocking smartphones, providing authentication in apps, and finding friends in social media posts. The MIT-Harvard researchers focused on deals involving so-called smart city technology, where face recognition is often deployed to enhance video surveillance. The research used information on global surveillance projects from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and data scraped from Chinese AI companies.”-Will Knight, China Is the World’s Biggest Face Recognition Dealer | WIRED
The data indicates that China already has an advantage in the global AI market, excelling the United States in exports. Lawmakers in the U.S. have expressed their concerns over these trends. Knight notes the increasing attempts on both sides of the political aisle to limit and regulate the proliferation of Chinese technology. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have levied tech sanctions on China. Alexandra Seymour of the Center for New American Security says that the U.S. should have a conversation about its technological values and offer AI alternatives to the world—ones that are friendly to freedom and democracy.