May 9, 2022 - 4:34pm

The leading edge in authoritarian tech usually comes dressed as exciting developments in artificial intelligence. Its typical face is Chinese: last week, researchers at Zheihang University released footage that showed a swarm of ten drones successfully navigating a forest without human control. Fascinating in the abstract — but the research, published in the digital magazine Science Robotics last week, also discusses the challenges that need addressing for the drones to ‘catch up with’ a human ‘target’.

Some possible applications have been seen recently in footage emerging from Zero Covid China. There, we saw dystopian clips of drones equipped with loudspeakers, hovering at balconies where citizens were singing in protest and instructing the singers to “Curb your thirst for freedom”.

Surely, though, this wouldn’t go beyond the borders of China?

Think again. Since 2018, the southern Californian town of Chula Vista has been steadily incorporating drones into its law enforcement, using a Trump-era ordinance aimed at exploring how drones can be integrated into American life. This was used to grant a special waiver to regulations governing how far drones can fly, and such devices are now routinely despatched as ‘first responders’ when someone contacts the Chula Vista police. Since 2021, drones have been able to cover the entire city. During the pandemic, they were equipped with speakers just like the Chinese ones — inviting questions about which set of authorities really is the trailblazer when it comes to robot policing.

Chula Vista authorities argue that using drones is in the interests of “de-escalation” — that is, their presence helps officers to judge when force is likely to be needed, meaning less risk of police violence against innocent citizens. Others are less convinced: the anti-authoritarian Activist Post claims that, contra official statements, these devices are routinely used for surveillance. And as the ACLU has noted, other states are already piloting similar programmes.

Nor is this is all just happening across the Atlantic. British law enforcement is already looking longingly at the power of tech to extend the reach of stretched policing. Several police departments already have partnerships with Ring, Amazon’s web-enabled surveillance doorbell product, while during the pandemic Derbyshire Police used drones to shame people who breached social distancing guidelines by watching the sun set on open hillsides miles from anyone else.

A spokesman for Impossible Aerospace, which manufactures the Chula Vista drones, is under no illusions about Chinese-style drone surveillance staying in China. The company’s CEO, Spencer Gore said:

What we saw in China, and what we’re probably going to see around the world, is using drones with cameras and loudspeakers to fly around to see if people are gathering where they shouldn’t be, and telling them to go home. It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives.
- Spencer Gore

Well, that’s okay then.

The reality is that the development and application of autonomous machines, artificial intelligence and surveillance tech is following more or less in the same trajectory across the whole developed world. If there’s a difference, it’s that for local cultural reasons the Chinese version is being rolled out without the Western gestures toward individual autonomy.

In truth, China’s tech dystopia and the one emerging now in the West are two facets of the same transformation. And whether in China or the West, it’s this technological vanguard that represents the true face of post-liberalism.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.