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Will Democracies Stand Up to Big Brother?

Rapid advances in AI and AI-enhanced surveillance tools have created an urgent need for international norms and coordination to set sensible standards. But with oppressive authoritarian regimes unlikely to cooperate, the world's democracies should start preparing to play economic hardball.

CAMBRIDGE – Fiction writers have long imagined scenarios in which every human action is monitored by some malign centralized authority. But now, despite their warnings, we find ourselves careening toward a dystopian future worthy of George Orwell’s 1984. The task of assessing how to protect our rights – as consumers, workers, and citizens – has never been more urgent.

One sensible proposal is to limit patents on surveillance technologies to discourage their development and overuse. All else being equal, this could tilt the development of AI-related technologies away from surveillance applications – at least in the United States and other advanced economies, where patent protections matter, and where venture capitalists will be reluctant to back companies lacking strong intellectual-property rights. But even if such sensible measures are adopted, the world will remain divided between countries with effective safeguards on surveillance and those without them. We therefore also need to consider the legitimate basis for trade between these emergent blocs.

AI capabilities have leapt forward over the past 18 months, and the pace of further development is unlikely to slow. The public release of ChatGPT in November 2022 was the generative-AI shot heard round the world. But just as important has been the equally rapid increase in governments and corporations’ surveillance capabilities. Since generative AI excels at pattern matching, it has made facial recognition remarkably accurate (though not without some major flaws). And the same general approach can be used to distinguish between “good” and problematic behavior, based simply on how people move or comport themselves.

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