Information technologies should not become political weapons

By Marcos Cordeiro Pires / 03-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Over the last three months, we have seen the rapid spread of the new artificial intelligence application known as ChatGPT. Just five days after it was publicly released in November 2022, ChatGPT crossed the one million user mark. By comparison, major apps like Facebook and Instagram took several months to reach the one million user base mark. People were impressed with the chatbot’s interaction and the accuracy of its responses. Artificial intelligence applications based on Open AI “chatbots” seem to be an irreversible trend.

ChatGPT used in military operations

ChatGPT is impacting education, journalism, and influencing how people think and act. Consequently, there will be a race between companies to create new applications for chatbots. One example of this is the artificial intelligence system of TikTok, a social media platform created by the Chinese company ByteDance. In this regard, it is worth following the actions of leading Chinese companies such as Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, as they are pressured to develop their chatbots.

One important factor to be considered is that to the extent that responses can be massified, so too can people can be induced to think and behave in a mass manner as well, potentially even more so than with the use of algorithms in social media platforms.

The use of information technologies as a political weapon in international relations has been intensifying in recent decades. It is worth thinking about the impacts of pre-targeted computer viruses. One such virus was the Stuxnet virus, a computer “worm” aimed initially at Iran’s nuclear facilities that has since mutated and spread to other industrial and power-generating facilities. Jointly developed by the US National Security Agency, the CIA and the Israeli military, Stuxnet was first used in 2010 to damage a uranium enrichment plant in the Islamic Republic of Iran and was the first known virus capable of crippling hardware. 

Other cybernetic instruments were used to organize so-called “hybrid wars” or “color revolutions” led by far-right groups or Western governments. In this case, social networks (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, etc.) were manipulated to create mass reactions for political purposes, such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the so-called “Arab Spring,” Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in Brazil, the BREXIT referendum and the election of Donald Trump, among others.

Chatbots, which are currently popular, can also be programmed to spread false information or to be used for illegal purposes. In 2016, during the Brexit referendum, a chatbot called “Brexitbot” was used to spread false information about the benefits of leaving the EU and the risks of remaining. In 2017, during the French Presidential election, a chatbot called “Marinebot” was used to spread false information about Macron’s policies and his personal life. 

Technology be limited by ethics

A work of art reflects the characteristics of its creator. Therefore, a machine learning program trained with a massive volume of information created and disseminated in English will undoubtedly reflect the culture, thinking, and political ideas of the environment in which it was created. If there is a prejudice against other countries in American (or Western) society, it will be reflected in the responses offered by ChatGPT or any other that arise in that environment. Therefore, if there is a cold war against China, chatbots will integrate the political and military front of the hegemonic powers.

Undoubtedly, US national security systems’ surveillance capabilities are highly developed, involving new applications and traditional technologies such as cell phone and email tracking. There are complex “satellite constellation” systems for conducting remote surveillance. In addition, it is necessary to consider the origin and nodes of the giant submarine internet cables, which invariably pass through countries linked to the political and military alliance of the West and are a source of capture of information that roams through them. 

Internet calls for regulatory body

After a period of protection conferred by patents, innovations are widely disseminated. Those whose use goes beyond national borders, such as ocean navigation, telecommunications, civil aviation, mail, vaccines, etc., have regulations linked to the United Nations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), International Labor Organization (ILO). However, a technology central to today’s society, such as the internet, does not have a multilateral regulatory body but only seemingly autonomous and self-regulated committees and bodies, which in practice are controlled by the US. There needs to be global governance linked to the United Nations, as is the case with civil aviation, health, telecommunications, and commerce, among others. 

Currently, the US government blocks negotiations for creating international internet regulatory bodies. It is important to remember that internet regulation does not only pass through the certification of names, the physical structure, and technical programming standards. These themes are important. However, a collective administration of the internet is necessary to curb the enormous power of the big technology companies and their ability to socially, commercially, and politically manipulate citizens of different countries. The internet has become a common good of humanity, in the same way as electricity, telecommunications or vaccines. It effectively needs to be a free space to improve the living conditions of ordinary people. Nevertheless, it cannot be at the mercy of any company or country’s petty interests. In this sense, creating a specific organization within the framework of the United Nations is an urgent task. It is worth remembering that innovations, once mature, become the public domain. But nobody nowadays charges royalties for this act!

Marcos Cordeiro Pires is a professor from the Department of International Politics and Economy at São Paulo State University, Brazil. 

Edited by BAI LE