Have you heard about China’s social credit system? It’s a technology-enabled, surveillance-based nationwide program designed to nudge citizens toward better behavior. The ultimate goal is to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step,” according to the Chinese government.
In place since 2014, the social credit system is a work in progress that could evolve by next year into a single, nationwide point system for all Chinese citizens, akin to a financial credit score. It aims to punish for transgressions that can include membership in or support for the Falun Gong or Tibetan Buddhism, failure to pay debts, excessive video gaming, criticizing the government, late payments, failing to sweep the sidewalk in front of your store or house, smoking or playing loud music on trains, jaywalking, and other actions deemed illegal or unacceptable by the Chinese government.
It can also award points for charitable donations or even taking one’s own parents to the doctor.
Punishments can be harsh, including bans on leaving the country, using public transportation, checking into hotels, hiring for high-visibility jobs, or acceptance of children to private schools. It can also result in slower internet connections and social stigmatization in the form of registration on a public blacklist.
China’s social credit system has been characterized in one pithy tweet as “authoritarianism, gamified.”
— Steve Randy Waldman (@interfluidity) October 4, 2015
At present, some parts of the social credit system are in force nationwide and others are local and limited (there are 40 or so pilot projects operated by local governments and at least six run by tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent).
Beijing maintains two nationwide lists, called the blacklist and the red list—the former consisting of people who have transgressed, and the latter people who have stayed out of trouble (a “red list” is the Communist version of a white list.) These lists are publicly searchable on a government website called China Credit.
The Chinese government also shares lists with technology platforms. So, for example, if someone criticizes the government on Weibo, their kids might be ineligible for acceptance to an elite school.
Public shaming is also part of China’s social credit system. Pictures of blacklisted people in one city were shown between videos on TikTok in a trial, and the addresses of blacklisted citizens were shown on a map on WeChat.
Some Western press reports imply that the Chinese populace is suffocating in a nationwide Skinner box of oppressive behavioral modification. But some Chinese are unaware that it even exists. And many others actually like the idea. One survey found that 80% of Chinese citizens surveyed either somewhat or strongly approve of social credit system.
‘Our supremacy as the prime understanders of the cosmos is rapidly coming to end.’
For tens of thousands of years, humans have reigned as our planet’s only intelligent, self-aware species. But the rise of intelligent machines means that could change soon, perhaps in our own lifetimes. Not long after that, Homo sapiens could vanish from Earth entirely.
That’s the jarring message of a new book by James Lovelock, the famed British environmentalist and futurist. “Our supremacy as the prime understanders of the cosmos is rapidly coming to end,” he says in the book, “Novacene.” “The understanders of the future will not be humans but what I choose to call ‘cyborgs’ that will have designed and built themselves.”
Lovelock describes cyborgs as the self-sufficient, self-aware descendants of today’s robots and artificial intelligence systems. He calls the looming era of their dominance the Novacene — literally, the “new new” age.
These days, there’s no shortage of modern-day Luddites warning that technology will soon overwhelm us. But Lovelock’s bold predictions stand apart. Unlike technoskeptics, including University of Louisville computer scientist Roman Yampolskiy, Lovelock thinks it unlikely that our machines will turn against us, Terminator-style. And unlike utopians like futurist Ray Kurzweil, he doesn’t envision humans and machines merging blissfully into a union that some call the singularity.
Rather, Lovelock views the rise of technology through an evolutionary lens, in keeping with his decades of research and thinking about ecological and biological systems. He also brings the unique perspective of a scientist who just marked his 100th birthday, with a deep awareness of changing scientific fashions and with nothing left to prove. It’s an outlook that pushes him to conclusions at once optimistic and deeply disturbing.