Microsoft President Brad Smith says that the dystopian world depicted by George Orwell in his novel “1984” — where totalitarian surveillance was a part of life — could soon become a reality, What’s more, it may be as early as 2024, if artificial intelligence (AI) is not regulated better, he suggests. Published in 1949, in the novel, Orwell had explored themes such as government surveillance, totalitarianism and how a dictator can manipulate and control lives by knowing what people are doing and saying at all times. Smith is worried that if we adopt the kind of AI once only imagined in such dystopian novels, the complete control of a nation under a totalitarian regime is absolutely possible.

Orwell’s “1984,” where citizens lived under the constant threat of surveillance and censorship, not only infiltrated the consciousness of thousands of people, but also gave rise to phrases and concepts — Big Brother, Thought Police, Room 101 — that are recognised and relevant even today as signs of a nightmarish future.

Smith, while speaking to BBC during a programme that explores China’s increasing use of AI to monitor its citizens said, “I’m constantly reminded of George Orwell’s lessons in his book ‘1984.’ You know the fundamental story was about a government who could see everything that everyone did and hear everything that everyone said all the time. Well, that didn’t come to pass in 1984, but if we’re not careful that could come to pass in 2024.”

He also called on world leaders to enact stricter laws to govern the use of AI, adding that if it wasn’t done to protect people in the future, “we are going to find the technology racing ahead, and it’s going to be very difficult to catch up.”

According to a report in Reuters, China in 2017 had released a plan outlining its ambition to become the world-leader in AI by 2025.

Last year, another report citing the UN patent agency stated that China had topped the world in filing AI patents, pushing the US out of the top spot it has held since the global system was set up more than 40 years ago. The report stated that 58,990 applications were filed from China in 2019, beating the US that filed 57,840.

According to a research by Comparitech, Chinese cities have the heaviest CCTV surveillance in the world. The research also states that China has 54 per cent, or more than half, of the world’s 770 million CCTV cameras.

An investigation in 2018 found that Google Maps continued to record users’ movements even after they turned off an option to store their location history in the app.


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