China and the algorithms: the Promised Land or digital nightmare?

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To get a peek at the changes that digitalization and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) might bring, it's worthwhile to take a look at China: The People's Republic wants to become a global leader in all things AI and is pursuing this goal resolutely. An illustrative example of these efforts is the "social credit score", which China plans to implement by 2020.

China and the algorithms

The Chinese "social credit score" shows how artificial intelligence can change our lives.

Social credit scores are supposed to represent the trustworthiness of individuals and companies with a single score number. "Good behavior," as defined by the government, is rewarded with social credit points. As people earn more points, they gain more privileges. Misbehavior is punished by deducting points. Low-scorers are punished, for example, in that they are prevented from booking flight or train tickets or given lower-quality hotel rooms.

The idea culminates in a state that has perfected the monitoring of its citizens – in a dystopia that is frightening from the European perspective.

We spoke with Mareike Ohlberg from the Mercator Institute for China Studies. We wanted to know how far China has progressed in the implementation of their plans. What do average Chinese think about the credit score? Is the criticism from Europe justified?

The China expert encourages more objective discussion and a look at the facts. "The word 'system' often brings to mind a centrally controlled system. But this is not the case. Here we need to understand the word 'system' more as a legal framework," said Ohlberg. A variety of tests in different regions is currently underway. She doesn't expect the system to be finished in 2020.

Asked about what the Chinese think about the system, Ohlberg replied, "there have been a few studies that show that the Chinese tend to support the system in general. That’s my personal impression too whenever I talk to Chinese. A lot of them feel that it helps solve the major problem of trust within Chinese society. But that doesn’t mean that basically all Chinese are in favor or that their assessment is necessarily based on sound information."

If you'd like to read more about the social credit score and whether we Europeans – with our western values of privacy freedom of expression – should consider it to be a far-off dystopia, read the full blog.

You'll find it in our special, along with the full interview with Mareike Ohlberg.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue.

China and the algorithms

China and the algorithms

The Chinese "social credit score" shows how artificial intelligence can change our lives.

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