November 30, 2019 12:00:22 am
Xinjiang is believed to be the setting of many of the stories of the One Thousand and One Nights, like that of Aladdin, who married the princess of China in the end. But a thousand years after Scheherazade, relations between the Uighur autonomous region and Beijing have turned bitter. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (icij.org), which The Indian Express worked with on the Panama Papers (the book by Express investigative journalists Ritu Sarin, P Vaidyanathan Iyer and Jay Mazoomdaar was released this week), has published its report on what is being described as the biggest mass incarceration of a minority since the Holocaust. The ‘China Cables’ explores a story that has made headlines repeatedly since 2017 — the crackdown on over a million Muslim Uighurs in China, mostly in Xinjiang — using leaked documents that reveal a systematic programme to enforce a change of identity on a minority.
Though Beijing dismisses the documents as fake news, they consistently reveal a system of mass surveillance to identify people for incarceration in indoctrination centres focused on teaching Mandarin and discipline. Both the surveillance and the camps have been reported on earlier, but the leak includes a manual for running the centres, the first to have come to light. The directives include complete prevention of escapes, the enforcement of strict protocols for everyday behaviour and the impossibility of release unless standards are met.
The report reveals a peculiar mix of diligence and arbitrariness. Exhibit A is a classified telegram from 2017, signed off by Zhu Hailun, then deputy secretary of the party in the region and the top security official, which is effectively a manual for running mass detention camps with panopticon-like surveillance. On the other hand, unclassified court papers tell of an Uighur man who was arbitrarily sentenced to 10 years for urging colleagues not to watch pornography or use bad language, lest they become “unbelievers”, and there are reports of lakhs of people in the dragnet, only because they had a particular sharing app on their phones.
On the question of freedoms, China has been complicated territory. The Great Firewall exists, but you don’t become a pioneer in Big Data and artificial intelligence without some openness. And it’s telling that in the heyday of Bitcoin, the digital offshoring of Chinese currency had become rampant. But Xinjiang is straightforward, amounting to the curtailment of physical freedom on a scale not seen in China since the Cultural Revolution. And it is dressed up in bureaucratese that Orwell’s Winston Smith would have understood right away: camps are called ‘education centres’ and prisoners are ‘students’.
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Facial recognition, AI and analytics enabled mass surveillance in Xinjiang, heightening concerns about the malevolent possibilities of these technologies. But two interventions this week by an academic and a practitioner tell the real story: technology is not about to take over the world. Arvind Narayanan, associate professor of computer science at Princeton, showed a set of slides at a talk at MIT which have spread like a ripple over the internet. Titled ‘How to Recognise AI Snake Oil’, the set dismisses the capability of AI in predicting professional prospects, terrorist risk and policing as “fundamentally dubious”. The thesis is that AI is being sold to a gullible public by rah-rah media, just as ‘smart’ home equipment like ‘neuro-fuzzy’ washing machines used to be.
The other notable caution comes, surprisingly, in the trade press — Analytics India Magazine. Anish Agarwal, director of data and analytics at Royal Bank of Scotland, India, dismisses AI as a buzzword. It cannot compete with humans, except in very narrow roles, because it does not think — it delivers a result, but does not understand what it has done. Indeed, while the media tirelessly celebrates machines beating humans at chess and Go, a crucial element of the story is left out — the machine does not even know that it is playing chess or Go. “AI is more like an Excel spreadsheet on steroids than a thinker,” the interview concludes.
In Maharashtra, perhaps no one except Sharad Pawar knew whether they were playing chess or Go, and anchors have made fools of themselves with their premature celebrations of “Chanakya-niti”. The game of high stakes, low cunning and deep pockets, which once earned editorial scoldings, is now admired in many newsrooms. On the other hand, the transparent joy of Rajdeep Sardesai, and the numerous headlines celebrating Constitution Day after the resignation of Devendra Fadnavis, suggest that the admiration is not universal.
While some sections of the Indian TV fraternity are happy to be assimilated, in the UK, the BBC is resisting vigorously. It has demanded that the Conservatives take down Facebook advertising using footage of their anchors Laura Kuenssberg and Huw Edwards, political editor and News at Ten host respectively, because it compromises perceptions of the organisation’s impartiality. The clips used suggest that they are for a quick Brexit and in Kuenssberg’s case, she was actually quoting Boris Johnson.
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