Authors: J.P.R. van der Laarse & N.L. Neuman
Publication Date: April 23, 2021

Surveillance AI is not exactly considered to be a positive development in this day and age, with controversial stories like China’s mass surveillance headlining many news platforms. (Andersen, 2020; BBC, 2021). These news items evoke a negative perception on AI and reminds us of movies like iRobot, Terminator, 2001: Space Odyssey, and Minority Report.This technophobic and dystopian view of Surveillance AI is part of the reason why ethical AI is a growing academic field. The focus of these studies lies primarily in preventing and countering this dystopian application of technology. However, despite the fact that these studies from a dystopian perspective are very much needed they mainly focus on limiting or governing these developments, and work from within existing structures and systems. It thus leaves little room for positive innovative developments.

Utopian Thinking
In order to get us to a future that opens up new possibilities in regards to Surveillance AI, instead of limiting them, we need a different approach to complement the dystopian work. Theory U teaches us that we need to be critical of our frame of mind, and preferably break out of our institutional bubble.This would enable innovation and accelerate the emerging future to take shape. (Scharmer, & Senge, 2016). We thus need a more out-of-the-box type of approach that is not limited by existing institutional structures. This approach stands at the center of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (1516), imagining a perfect world in comparison to the world we are living in. Regardless of its attainability we focus on the thinking method itself.

Utopian Thinking has been at the foundation of many great technological innovations, for example the World Wide Web, and smartphones. Not to mention groundbreaking ideas, such as the theory of relativity, and the apartheid abolition (Hök, 2019). According to Brown (2015), it also facilitates collective thinking, which is essential for tackling complex problems “in these times of transformational change” (p.1). Bell and Pahl (2018) add that co-production – like using a thinktank for example – is a Utopian Thinking method. According to them (Bell & Pahl, 2018) Utopian Thinking methods are essential for reshaping the world as we know it for the better. In addition it encourages the public to become involved in the process (Fernando et al., 2018), which is precisely the type of citizen involvement we deem to be important for design, development, and implementation of Inverse Surveillance AI.

It is for these reasons that we approach our research from a utopian perspective, and therefore we encourage, imaginative, original, out of the box thinking, which follows the example of great thinkers that stood at the basis of monumental innovations and ideas (Hök, 2019). We need to look past our current way of thinking within existing structures, and build a new vision of what is socially acceptable in order to drive the growth and implementation of Surveillance AI (Harari, 2018). As Albert Einstein, emphasized: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” (Kataria, 2019).


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