China’s New AI ‘Prosecutor’ Can Charge People for Political Dissent

By Todd Crawford | December 29, 2021
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SHANGHAI, CHINA - JUNE 18: Cutting edge applications of Artificial Intelligence are seen on display at the Artificial Intelligence Pavilion of Zhangjiang Future Park during a state organized media tour on June 18, 2021 in Shanghai, China. (Image: Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images)

China’s largest district prosecution office, the Shanghai Pudong People’s Procuratorate, has developed and deployed an artificial intelligence (AI) that can file charges against suspects based only on a verbal description, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. 

According to its researchers the AI “prosecutor” boasts a 97 percent accuracy rate when levying charges however, mistakes can be made. A prosecutor from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, raised concerns with SCMP stating, “Who will take responsibility when it happens? The prosecutor, the machine or the designer of the algorithm?” 

The machine was trained by feeding it data from more than 17,000 cases that took place from 2015 to 2020. Currently it can charge people with eight of the most common crimes in Shanghai including, fraud, credit card fraud, theft, dangerous driving, intentional injury, obstructing official duties, running a gambling operation and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

The project’s lead, Professor Shi Yong, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ big data and knowledge management laboratory told SCMP that the AI was developed and deployed in an attempt to reduce the courts prosecutors’ daily workload. 

“The system can replace prosecutors in the decision-making process to a certain extent,” Shi said.

Shi told SCMP that the existing AI tools have a limited role in the process and that “they do not participate in the decision-making process of filing charges and [suggesting] sentences.”

The AI works in tandem with another AI known as System 206 which is a tool that researchers say can evaluate “the strength of evidence, conditions for an arrest and how dangerous a suspect is considered to be to the public,” SCMP reported. 

System 206, an AI assistive tech, was first deployed at trial in January 2019. The tech was utilized to assist in a robbery and murder case with supporters of the tech saying the AI eliminates human errors. 

At the time, Wu Haiyin, deputy head of the information department of Shanghai High People’s Court said, “The transcript and evidence presentation went along as the trial proceeded. The 206 system realized full-course intelligence assistance and reviewed evidences comprehensively, playing an active role in impartial judgment,” China Daily, a state-run media organization reported.

READ MORE: UN, International Community Call For Immediate Release of Jailed Chinese Journalist Zhang Zhan

READ MORE: Chinese Agricultural Businessman Sun Dawu Sentenced to 18 Years for ‘Seeking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble’

‘Picking quarrels’

Picking quarrels and provoking trouble is a common “catch all” charge levied primarily against dissenters against the state. 

The vague charge of “picking quarrels”, according to Chinese law, involves people who willfully attack another person with bad circumstances, chasing, intercepting, or cursing another person, forcibly taking away, demanding, or willfully damaging or seizing public or private property or creating a disturbance in a public place causing serious disorder.  

The AI prosecutor reportedly has the ability to navigate such broad charges and circumstances by analyzing verbal cues only. 

Notable people charged with the crime include Yang Maodong, a Chinese human rights lawyer who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2015 and Wang Jingyu, a teenager who posted content to Chinese social media, that the state found questionable, concerning the India-China border standoff and Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations.

Sun Dawu, a former Chinese billionaire was sentenced to eighteen years in prison in July 2021 under the law. 

Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who reported on the early outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan was arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to four years in prison in December 2020 under the same law.

The new prosecutor AI is still in its infancy and has not yet been widely rolled out. However, after the reported success of System 206 Chinese citizens who find themselves at the mercy of the Chinese court system may find themselves at the mercy of a machine as well.