Techno-Tyranny: How The US National Security State Is Using Coronavirus To Fulfill An Orwellian Vision

Originally published at The Last American Vagabond

Last year, a government commission called for the US to adopt an AI-driven mass surveillance system far beyond that used in any other country in order to ensure American hegemony in artificial intelligence. Now, many of the “obstacles” they had cited as preventing its implementation are rapidly being removed under the guise of combating the coronavirus crisis.

Last year, a U.S. government body
dedicated to examining how artificial intelligence can “address the
national security and defense needs of the United States” discussed in
detail the “structural” changes that the American economy and society
must undergo in order to ensure a technological advantage over China,
according to a recent document acquired through a FOIA request.
This document suggests that the U.S. follow China’s lead and even
surpass them in many aspects related to AI-driven technologies,
particularly their use of mass surveillance. This perspective clearly
clashes with the public rhetoric of prominent U.S. government officials
and politicians on China, who have labeled the Chinese government’s
technology investments and export of its surveillance systems and other
technologies as a major “threat” to Americans’ “way of life.”

In addition, many of the steps for the
implementation of such a program in the U.S., as laid out in this newly
available document, are currently being promoted and implemented as part
of the government’s response to the current coronavirus (Covid-19)
crisis. This likely due to the fact that many members of this same body
have considerable overlap with the taskforces and advisors currently
guiding the government’s plans to “re-open the economy” and efforts to
use technology to respond to the current crisis.

The FOIA document, obtained by the
Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), was produced by a
little-known U.S. government organization called the National Security
Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI). It was created by
the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and its official
purpose is “to consider the methods and means necessary to advance the
development of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and
associated technologies to comprehensively address the national security
and defense needs of the United States.”

The NSCAI is a key part of the government’s response to what is often referred to as the coming “fourth industrial revolution,”
which has been described as “a revolution characterized by
discontinuous technological development in areas like artificial
intelligence (AI), big data, fifth-generation telecommunications
networking (5G), nanotechnology and biotechnology, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and quantum computing.”

However, their main focus is ensuring that “the United States … maintain a technological advantage
in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other associated
technologies related to national security and defense.” The vice-chair
of NSCAI, Robert Work – former Deputy Secretary of Defense and senior fellow at the hawkish Center for a New American Security (CNAS), described the commission’s purpose as determining “how the U.S. national security apparatus should approach artificial intelligence, including a focus on how the government can work with industry to compete with China’s ‘civil-military fusion’ concept.”

The recently released NSCAI document is a May 2019 presentation entitled “Chinese Tech Landscape Overview.”
Throughout the presentation, the NSCAI promotes the overhaul of the
U.S. economy and way of life as necessary for allowing the U.S. to
ensure it holds a considerable technological advantage over China, as
losing this advantage is currently deemed a major “national security”
issue by the U.S. national security apparatus. This concern about
maintaining a technological advantage can be seen in several other U.S.
military documents and think tank reports, several of which have warned that the U.S.’ technological advantage is quickly eroding.

The U.S. government and establishment media outlets often blame alleged Chinese espionage or the Chinese government’s more explicit partnerships with private technology companies
in support of their claim that the U.S. is losing this advantage over
China. For instance, Chris Darby, the current CEO of the CIA’s In-Q-Tel,
who is also on the NSCAI, told CBS News
last year that China is the U.S.’ main competitor in terms of
technology and that U.S. privacy laws were hampering the U.S.’ capacity
to counter China in this regard, stating that:

“[D]ata is the new oil. And China is just awash with data. And they don’t have the same restraints
that we do around collecting it and using it, because of the privacy
difference between our countries. This notion that they have the largest
labeled data set in the world is going to be
a huge strength for them.”

In another example, Michael Dempsey –
former acting Director of National Intelligence and currently a
government-funded fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations – argued in
The Hill that:

“It’s quite clear, though, that China is determined to erase
our technological advantage, and is committing hundreds of billions of
dollars to this effort. In particular, China is determined to be a world
leader in such areas as artificial intelligence, high performance
computing, and synthetic biology. These are the industries that will
shape life on the planet and
the military balance of power for the next several decades.”

In fact, the national security apparatus
of the United States is so concerned about losing a technological edge
over China that the Pentagon recently decided to join forces directly with the U.S. intelligence community in order “to get in front of Chinese advances in artificial intelligence.” This union resulted in the creation of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), which ties together “the military’s efforts with those of the Intelligence Community, allowing them to combine efforts in a breakneck push to move government’s AI initiatives forward.”
It also coordinates with other government agencies, industry,
academics, and U.S. allies. Robert Work, who subsequently became the
NSCAI vice-chair, said at the time that JAIC’s creation was a “welcome
first step in response to Chinese, and to a lesser extent, Russian,
plans to dominate these technologies.”

Similar concerns about “losing” technological advantage to China have also been voiced by the NSCAI chairman, Eric Schmidt, the former head of Alphabet – Google’s parent company, who argued in February in the New York Times that Silicon Valley could soon lose “the technology wars” to China if the U.S. government doesn’t take action. Thus, the three main groups represented within the NSCAI – the intelligence community, the Pentagon and Silicon Valley – all view China’s advancements in AI as a major national security threat (and in Silicon Valley’s case, threat to their bottom lines and market shares) that must be tackled quickly.

Targeting China’s “adoption advantage”

In the May 2019 “Chinese Tech Landscape Overview
presentation, the NSCAI discusses that, while the U.S. still leads in
the “creation” stage of AI and related technologies, it lags behind
China in the “adoption” stage due to “structural factors.” It says that
“creation”, followed by “adoption” and “iteration” are the three phases
of the “life cycle of new tech” and asserts that failing to dominate in
the “adoption” stage will allow China to “leapfrog” the U.S. and
dominate AI for the foreseeable future.

The presentation also argues that, in order to “leapfrog” competitors in emerging markets, what is needed is not “individual brilliance” but instead specific “structural conditions that exist within certain markets.” It cites several case studies where China is considered to be “leapfrogging” the U.S. due to major differences in these “structural factors.” Thus, the insinuation of the document (though not directly stated) is that the U.S. must alter the “structural factors” that are currently responsible for its lagging behind China in the “adoption” phase of AI-driven technologies.

Chief among the troublesome “structural
factors” highlighted in this presentation are so-called “legacy systems”
that are common in the U.S. but much less so in China. The NSCAI
document states that examples of “legacy systems” include a financial
system that still utilizes cash and card payments, individual car
ownership and even receiving medical attention from a human doctor. It
states that, while these “legacy systems” in the US are “good enough,”
too many “good enough” systems “hinder the adoption of new things,”
specifically AI-driven systems.

Another structural factor deemed by the
NSCAI to be an obstacle to the U.S.’ ability to maintain a technological
advantage over China is the “scale of the consumer market,” arguing
that “extreme urban density = on-demand service adoption.” In other
words, extreme urbanization results in more people using online or
mobile-based “on-demand” services, ranging from ride-sharing to online
shopping. It also cites the use of mass surveillance on China’s “huge
population base” is an example of how China’s “scale of consumer market”
advantage allowing “China to leap ahead” in the fields of related
technologies, like facial recognition.

In addition to the alleged shortcomings
of the U.S.’ “legacy systems” and lack of “extreme urban density,” the
NSCAI also calls for more “explicit government support and involvement”
as a means to speed up the adoption of these systems in the U.S. This
includes the government lending its stores of data on civilians to train
AI, specifically citing facial recognition databases, and mandating
that cities be “re-architected around AVs [autonomous vehicles],” among
others. Other examples given include the government investing large
amounts of money in AI start-ups and adding tech behemoths to a
national, public-private AI taskforce focused on smart
city-implementation (among other things).

With regards to the latter, the document
says “this level of public-private cooperation” in China is “outwardly
embraced” by the parties involved, with this “serving as a stark
contrast to the controversy around Silicon Valley selling to the U.S.
government.” Examples of such controversy, from the NSCAI’s perspective,
likely include Google employees petitioning to end the Google-Pentagon “Project Maven,” which uses Google’s AI software to analyze footage captured by drones. Google eventually chose not to renew
its Maven contract as a result of the controversy, even though top
Google executives viewed the project as a “golden opportunity” to
collaborate more closely with the military and intelligence communities.

The document also defines another aspect
of government support as the “clearing of regulatory barriers.” This
term is used in the document specifically with respect to U.S. privacy
laws, despite the fact that the U.S. national security state has long
violated these laws with near complete impunity. However, the document
seems to suggest that privacy laws in the U.S. should be altered so that
what the U.S. government has done “in secret” with private citizen data
can be done more openly and more extensively. The NSCAI document also
discusses the removal of “regulatory barriers” in order to speed up the
adoption of self-driving cars, even though autonomous driving technology
has resulted in several deadly and horrific car accidents and presents other safety concerns.

Also discussed is how China’s “adoption
advantage” will “allow it to leapfrog the U.S.” in several new fields,
including “AI medical diagnosis” and “smart cities.” It then asserts
that “the future will be decided at the intersection of private
enterprise and policy leaders between China and the U.S.” If this
coordination over the global AI market does not occur, the document
warns that “we [the U.S.] risk being left out of the discussions where
norms around AI are set for the rest of our lifetimes.”

The presentation also dwells considerably
on how “the main battleground [in technology] are not the domestic
Chinese and US markets,” but what it refers to as the NBU (next billion
users) markets, where it states that “Chinese players will aggressively
challenge Silicon Valley.” In order to challenge them more successfully,
the presentation argues that, “just like we [view] the market of
teenagers as a harbinger for new trends, we should look at China.”

The document also expresses concerns
about China exporting AI more extensively and intensively than the U.S.,
saying that China is “already crossing borders” by helping to build
facial databases in Zimbabwe and selling image recognition and smart
city systems to Malaysia. If allowed to become “the unambiguous leader
in AI,” it says that “China could end up writing much of the rulebook of
international norms around the deployment of AI” and that it would
“broaden China’s sphere of influence amongst an international community
that increasingly looks to the pragmatic authoritarianism of China and
Singapore as an alternative to Western liberal democracy.”

What will replace the US’ “legacy systems”?

Given that the document makes it quite
clear that “legacy systems” in the U.S. are impeding its ability to
prevent China from “leapfrogging” ahead in AI and then dominating it for
the foreseeable future, it is also important to examine what the
document suggests should replace these “legacy systems” in the U.S.

As previously mentioned, one “legacy
system” cited early on in the presentation is the main means of payment
for most Americans, cash and credit/debit cards. The presentation
asserts, in contrast to these “legacy systems” that the best and most
advanced system is moving entirely to smartphone-based digital wallets.

It notes specifically the main mobile wallet provider in India, PayTM, is majority owned by
Chinese companies. It quotes an article, which states that “a big break
came [in 2016] when India canceled 86% of currency in circulation in an
effort to cut corruption and bring more people into the tax net by
forcing them to use less cash.” At the time, claims that India’s 2016
“currency reform” would be used as a stepping stone towards a cashless
society were dismissed by some as “conspiracy theory.” However, last
year, a committee convened by India’s
central bank (and led by an Indian tech oligarch who also created
India’s massive civilian biometric database) resulted in the Indian
government’s “Cashless India” program.

Regarding India’s 2016 “currency reform,” the NSCAI document then asserts that “this would be unfathomable in the West.
And unsurprisingly, when 86% of the cash got cancelled and nobody had a
credit card, mobile wallets in India exploded, laying the groundwork
for a far more advanced payments ecosystem in India than the US.” However, it has become increasingly less unfathomable in light of the current coronavirus crisis, which has seen efforts to reduce the amount of cash used because paper bills may carry the virus as well as efforts to introduce a Federal Reserve-backed “digital dollar.”

In addition, the NSCAI document from last
May calls for the end of in-person shopping and promotes moving towards
all shopping being performed online. It argues that “American companies
have a lot to gain by adopting ideas from Chinese companies” by
shifting towards exclusive e-commerce purchasing options. It states that
only shopping online provides a “great experience” and also adds that “when buying online is literally the only way to get what you want, consumers go online.”

Another “legacy system” that the NSCAI
seeks to overhaul is car ownership, as it promotes autonomous, or
self-driving vehicles and further asserts that “fleet ownership >
individual ownership.” It specifically points to a need for “a
centralized ride-sharing network,” which it says “is needed to
coordinate cars to achieve near 100% utilization rates.” However, it
warns against ride-sharing networks that “need a human operator paired
with each vehicle” and also asserts that “fleet ownership makes more
sense” than individual car ownership. It also specifically calls for
these fleets to not only be composed of self-driving cars, but electric
cars and cites reports that China “has the world’s most aggressive
electric vehicle goals….and seek[s] the lead in an emerging industry.”

The document states that China leads in
ride-sharing today even though ride-sharing was pioneered first in the
U.S. It asserts once again that the U.S. “legacy system” of individual
car ownership and lack of “extreme urban density” are responsible for
China’s dominance in this area. It also predicts that China will
“achieve mass autonomous [vehicle] adoption before the U.S.,” largely
because “the lack of mass car ownership [in China] leads to far more
consumer receptiveness to AVs [autonomous vehicles].” It then notes that
“earlier mass adoption leads to a virtuous cycle that allows Chinese
core self-driving tech to accelerate beyond [its] Western counterparts.”

In addition to their vision for a future
financial system and future self-driving transport system, the NSCAI has
a similarly dystopian vision for surveillance. The document calls mass
surveillance “one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for AI” and “a
killer application for deep learning.” It also states that “having
streets carpeted with cameras is good infrastructure.”

It then discusses how “an entire
generation of AI unicorn” companies are “collecting the bulk of their
early revenue from government security contracts” and praises the use of
AI in facilitating policing activities. For instance, it lauds reports
that “police are making convictions based on phone calls monitored with
iFlyTek’s voice-recognition technology” and that “police departments are
using [AI] facial recognition tech to assist in everything from
catching traffic law violators to resolving murder cases.”

On the point of facial recognition
technology specifically, the NSCAI document asserts that China has
“leapt ahead” of the US on facial recognition, even though
“breakthroughs in using machine learning for image recognition initially
occurred in the US.” It claims that China’s advantage in this instance
is because they have government-implemented mass surveillance (“clearing
of regulatory barriers”), enormous government-provided stores of data
(“explicit government support”) combined with private sector databases
on a huge population base (“scale of consumer market”). As a consequence
of this, the NSCAI argues, China is also set to leap ahead of the U.S.
in both image/facial recognition and biometrics.

The document also points to another
glaring difference between the U.S. and its rival, stating that: “In the
press and politics of America and Europe, Al is painted as something to
be feared that is eroding privacy and stealing jobs. Conversely, China
views it as both a tool for solving major macroeconomic challenges in
order to sustain their economic miracle, and an opportunity to take technological leadership on the global stage.”

The NSCAI document also touches on the
area of healthcare, calling for the implementation of a system that
seems to be becoming reality thanks to the current coronavirus crisis.
In discussing the use of AI in healthcare (almost a year before the
current crisis began), it states that “China could lead the world in
this sector” and “this could lead to them exporting their tech and
setting international norms.” One reason for this is also that China has
“far too few doctors for the population” and calls having enough
doctors for in-person visits a “legacy system.” It also cited U.S.
regulatory measures such as “HIPPA compliance and FDA approval” as
obstacles that don’t constrain Chinese authorities.

More troubling, it argues that “the
potential impact of government supplied data is even more significant in
biology and healthcare,” and says it is likely that “the Chinese
government [will] require every single citizen to have their DNA
sequenced and stored in government databases, something nearly
impossible to imagine in places as privacy conscious as the U.S. and
Europe.” It continues by saying that “the Chinese apparatus is
well-equipped to take advantage” and calls these civilian DNA databases a
“logical next step.”

Who are the NSCAI?

Given the sweeping changes to the U.S.
that the NSCAI promoted in this presentation last May, it becomes
important to examine who makes up the commission and to consider their
influence over U.S. policy on these matters, particularly during the
current crisis. As previously mentioned, the chairman of the NSCAI is
Eric Schmidt, the former head of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) who
has also invested heavily in Israeli intelligence-linked tech companies including the controversial start-up “incubator” Team8.
In addition, the committee’s vice-chair is Robert Work, is not only a
former top Pentagon official, but is currently working with the think
tank CNAS, which is run by John McCain’s long-time foreign policy adviser and Joe Biden’s former national security adviser.

Other members of the NSCAI are as follows:

  • Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, with close ties to Trump’s top donor Sheldon Adelson
  • Steve Chien, supervisor of the Artificial Intelligence Group at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab
  • Mignon Clyburn, Open Society Foundation fellow and former FCC commissioner
  • Chris Darby, CEO of In-Q-Tel (CIA’s venture capital arm)
  • Ken Ford, CEO of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
  • Jose-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University and former National Science Board member
  • Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research Labs
  • Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services (CIA contractor)
  • Gilman Louie, partner at Alsop Louie Partners and former CEO of In-Q-Tel
  • William Mark, director of SRI International and former Lockheed Martin director
  • Jason Matheny, director of the Center
    for Security and Emerging Technology, former Assistant director of
    National Intelligence and former director of IARPA (Intelligence
    Advanced Research Project Agency)
  • Katharina McFarland, consultant at Cypress International and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition
  • Andrew Moore, head of Google Cloud AI

As can be seen in the list above, there
is a considerable amount of overlap between the NSCAI and the companies
currently advising the White House on “re-opening” the economy (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Lockheed Martin, Oracle) and one NSCAI member, Oracle’s Safra Katz,
is on the White House’s “economic revival” taskforce. Also, there is
also overlap between the NSCAI and the companies that are intimately
involved in the implementation of the “contact tracing” “coronavirus
surveillance system,” a mass surveillance system promoted by the Jared
Kushner-led, private-sector coronavirus task force. That surveillance
system is set to be constructed by companies with deep ties to Google and the U.S. national security state,
and both Google and Apple, who create the operating systems for the
vast majority of smartphones used in the U.S., have said they will now
build that surveillance system directly into their smartphone operating systems.

Also notable is the fact that In-Q-Tel
and the U.S. intelligence community has considerable representation on
the NSCAI and that they also boast close ties with Google, Palantir and
other Silicon Valley giants, having been early investors in those
companies. Both Google and Palantir, as well as Amazon (also on the
NSCAI) are also major contractors for U.S. intelligence agencies.
In-Q-Tel’s involvement on the NSCAI is also significant because they
have been heavily promoting mass surveillance of consumer electronic
devices for use in pandemics for the past several years. Much of that
push has come from
In-Q-Tel’s current Executive Vice President Tara O’Toole, who was
previously the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
and also co-authored several controversial biowarfare/pandemic simulations, such as Dark Winter.

In addition, since at least January, the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon have been at the forefront of developing
the U.S. government’s still-classified “9/11-style” response plans for
the coronavirus crisis, alongside the National Security Council. Few
news organizations have noted that these classified response plans,
which are set to be triggered if and when the U.S. reaches a certain
number of coronavirus cases, has been created largely by elements of the
national security state (i.e. the NSC, Pentagon, and intelligence), as
opposed to civilian agencies or those focused on public health issues.

Furthermore, it has been reported
that the U.S. intelligence community as well as U.S. military
intelligence knew by at least January (though recent reports have said as early as last November)
that the coronavirus crisis would reach “pandemic proportions” by
March. The American public were not warned, but elite members of the
business and political classes were apparently informed, given the
record numbers of CEO resignations in January and several high-profile
insider trading allegations that preceded the current crisis by a matter
of weeks.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the
added fact that the U.S. government not only participated in the eerily
prescient pandemic simulation last October known as Event 201,
it also led a series of pandemic response simulations last year.
Crimson Contagion was a series of four simulations that involved 19 U.S.
federal agencies, including intelligence and the military, as well as
12 different states and a host of private sector companies that
simulated a devastating pandemic influenza outbreak that had originated
in China. It was led by the current HHS Assistant Secretary for
Preparedness and Response, Robert Kadlec, who is a former lobbyist for
military and intelligence contractors and a Bush-era homeland security
“bioterrorism” advisor.

In addition, both Kadlec and the Johns
Hopkins Center for Health Security, which was intimately involved in
Event 201, have direct ties to the controversial June 2001 biowarfare
exercise “Dark Winter,”
which predicted the 2001 anthrax attacks that transpired just months
later in disturbing ways. Though efforts by media and government were
made to blame the anthrax attacks on a foreign source, the anthrax was
later found to have originated at a U.S. bioweapons lab and the FBI
investigation into the case has been widely regarded as a cover-up,
including by the FBI’s once-lead investigator on that case.

Given the above, it is worth asking if
those who share the NSCAI’s vision saw the coronavirus pandemic early on
as an opportunity to make the “structural changes” it had deemed
essential to countering China’s lead in the mass adoption of AI-driven
technologies, especially considering that many of the changes in the May
2019 document are now quickly taking place under the guise of
combatting the coronavirus crisis.

The NSCAI’s vision takes shape

Though the May 2019 NSCAI document was
authored nearly a year ago, the coronavirus crisis has resulted in the
implementation of many of the changes and the removal of many of the
“structural” obstacles that the commission argued needed to be
drastically altered in order to ensure a technological advantage over
China in the field of AI. The aforementioned move away from cash, which
is taking place not just in the U.S. but internationally, is just one example of many.

For instance, earlier this week CNN reported
that grocery stores are now considering banning in-person shopping and
that the U.S. Department of Labor has recommended that retailers
nationwide start “‘using a drive-through window or offering curbside
pick-up’ to protect workers for exposure to coronavirus.” In addition,
last week, the state of Florida approved an online-purchase plan for low income families using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Other reports have argued
that social distancing inside grocery stores is ineffective and
endangering people’s lives. As previously mentioned, the May 2019 NSCAI
document argues that moving away from in-person shopping is necessary to
mitigate China’s “adoption advantage” and also argued that “when buying
online is literally the only way to get what you want, consumers go online.”

Reports have also argued that these changes in shopping will last far beyond coronavirus, such as an article by Business Insider entitled “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing more people online and will forever change how Americans shop for groceries, experts say.”
Those cited in the piece argue that this shift away from in-person
shopping will be “permanent” and also states that “More people are
trying these services than otherwise would have without this catalyst and gives online players a greater chance to acquire and keep a new customer base.” A similar article in Yahoo! News
argues that, thanks to the current crisis, “our dependence on online
shopping will only rise because no one wants to catch a virus at a

In addition, the push towards the mass
use of self-driving cars has also gotten a boost thanks to coronavirus,
with driverless cars now making on-demand deliveries
in California. Two companies, one Chinese-owned and the other backed by
Japan’s SoftBank, have since been approved to have their self-driving
cars used on California roads and that approval was expedited due to the
coronavirus crisis. The CPO of Nuro Inc., the SoftBank-backed company,
was quoted in Bloomberg as saying that “The Covid-19 pandemic has expedited the public need for contactless delivery services. Our R2 fleet is custom-designed to change the very nature of driving and the movement of goods by allowing people to remain safely at home while their groceries, medicines, and packages are brought to them.” Notably, the May 2019 NSCAI document
references the inter-connected web of SoftBank-backed companies,
particularly those backed by its largely Saudi-funded “Vision Fund,” as
forming “the connective tissue for a global federation of tech
companies” set to dominate AI.

California isn’t the only state to start
using self-driving cars, as the Mayo Clinic of Florida is now also using
them. “Using artificial intelligence enables us to protect staff from
exposure to this contagious virus by using cutting-edge autonomous
vehicle technology and frees up staff time that can be dedicated to
direct treatment and care for patients,” Kent Thielen, M.D., CEO of Mayo
Clinic in Florida stated in a recent press release cited by Mic.

Like the changes to in-person shopping in
the age of coronavirus, other reports assert that self-driving vehicles
are here to stay. One report published by Mashable is entitled “It took a coronavirus outbreak for self-driving cars to become more appealing,”
and opens by stating “Suddenly, a future full of self-driving cars
isn’t just a sci-fi pipe dream. What used to be considered a scary,
uncertain technology for many Americans looks more like an effective
tool to protect ourselves from a fast-spreading, infectious disease.” It
further argues that this is hardly a “fleeting shift” in driving habits
and one tech CEO cited in the piece, Anuja Sonalker of Steer Tech,
claims that “There has been a distinct warming up to human-less,
contactless technology. Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”

Another focus of the NSCAI presentation,
AI medicine, has also seen its star rise in recent weeks. For instance,
several reports have touted how AI-driven drug discovery platforms have been able to identify potential treatments for coronavirus. Microsoft, whose research lab director is on the NSCAI, recently put $20 million
into its “AI for health” program to speed up the use of AI in analyzing
coronavirus data. In addition, “telemedicine”– a form of remote medical
care – has also become widely adopted due to the coronavirus crisis.

Several other AI-driven technologies have similarly become more widely adopted thanks to coronavirus, including the use of mass surveillance for “contact tracing” as well as facial recognition technology and biometrics. A recent Wall Street Journal report
stated that the government is seriously considering both contact
tracing via phone geolocation data and facial recognition technology in
order to track those who might have coronavirus. In addition, private businesses – like grocery stores and restaurants – are using sensors and facial recognition to see how many people and which people are entering their stores.

As far as biometrics go, university researchers are now working to determine
if “smartphones and biometric wearables already contain the data we
need to know if we have become infected with the novel coronavirus.”
Those efforts seek to detect coronavirus infections early by analyzing
“sleep schedules, oxygen levels, activity levels and heart rate” based
on smartphone apps like FitBit and smartwatches. In countries outside
the U.S., biometric IDs are being touted as a way to track those who have and lack immunity to coronavirus.

In addition, one report in The Edge argued
that the current crisis is changing what types of biometrics should be
used, asserting that a shift towards thermal scanning and facial
recognition is necessary:

“At this critical juncture of the crisis, any integrated facial recognition and thermal scanning solution must be implemented easily, rapidly and in a cost-effective manner.
Workers returning to offices or factories must not have to scramble to
learn a new process or fumble with declaration forms. They must feel
safe and healthy for them to work productively.
They just have to look at the camera and smile. Cameras and thermal scanners, supported by a cloud-based solution and the appropriate software protocols, will do the rest.”

Also benefiting from the coronavirus crisis is the concept of “smart cities,” with Forbes recently writing
that “Smart cities can help us combat the coronavirus pandemic.” That
article states that “Governments and local authorities are using smart
city technology, sensors and data to trace the contacts of people
infected with the coronavirus. At the same time, smart cities are also
helping in efforts to determine whether social distancing rules are
being followed.”

That article in Forbes also contains the following passage:

“…[T]he use of masses of connected sensors makes it clear that the coronavirus pandemic is–intentionally or not–being used as a testbed for new surveillance technologies that may threaten privacy and civil liberties. So aside from being a global health crisis, the coronavirus has effectively become an experiment in how to monitor and control people at scale.”

Another report in The Guardian
states that “If one of the government takeaways from coronavirus is
that ‘smart cities’ including Songdo or Shenzhen are safer cities from a
public health perspective, then we can expect greater efforts to
digitally capture and record our behaviour in urban areas – and fiercer
debates over the power such surveillance hands to corporations and
states.” There have also been reports that assert that typical cities
are “woefully unprepared” to face pandemics compared to “smart cities.”

Yet, beyond many of the NSCAI’s specific
concerns regarding mass AI adoption being conveniently resolved by the
current crisis, there has also been a concerted effort to change the
public’s perception of AI in general. As previously mentioned, the NSCAI
had pointed out last year that:

“In the press and politics of
America and Europe, Al is painted as something to be feared that is
eroding privacy and stealing jobs. Conversely, China views it as both a
tool for solving major macroeconomic challenges in order to sustain
their economic miracle, and an opportunity to take technological
leadership on the global stage.”

Now, less than a year later, the
coronavirus crisis has helped spawn a slew of headlines in just the last
few weeks that paint AI very differently, including “How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Fight Coronavirus,” “How AI May Prevent the Next Coronavirus Outbreak,” “AI Becomes an Ally in the Fight Against COVID-19,” “Coronavirus: AI steps up in battle against COVID-19,” and “Here’s How AI Can Help Africa Fight the Coronavirus,” among numerous others.

It is indeed striking how the coronavirus
crisis has seemingly fulfilled the NSCAI’s entire wishlist and removed
many of the obstacles to the mass adoption of AI technologies in the
United States. Like major crises of the past, the national security
state appears to be using the chaos and fear to promote and implement
initiatives that would be normally rejected by Americans and, if history
is any indicator, these new changes will remain long after the
coronavirus crisis fades from the news cycle. It is essential that these
so-called “solutions
be recognized for what they are and that we consider what type of world
they will end up creating – an authoritarian technocracy. We ignore the
rapid advance of these NSCAI-promoted initiatives and the phasing out
of so-called “legacy systems” (and with them, many long-cherished
freedoms) at our own peril.

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