Can frontier innovation be sustained under autocracy? We argue that innovation and autocracy can be mutually reinforcing when: (i) the new technology bolsters the autocrat’s power; and (ii) the autocrat’s demand for the technology stimulates further innovation in applications beyond those benefiting it directly. We test for such a mutually reinforcing relationship in the context of facial recognition AI in China. To do so, we gather comprehensive data on AI firms and government procurement contracts, as well as on social unrest across China during the last decade. We first show that autocrats benefit from AI: local unrest leads to greater government procurement of facial recognition AI, and increased AI procurement suppresses subsequent unrest. We then show that AI innovation benefits from autocrats’ suppression of unrest: the contracted AI firms innovate more both for the government and commercial markets. Taken together, these results suggest the possibility of sustained AI innovation under the Chinese regime: AI innovation entrenches the regime, and the regime’s investment in AI for political control stimulates further frontier innovation.
Many appreciated suggestions, critiques and encouragement were provided by Tim Besley, Filipe Campante, Sergei Guriev, Torsten Persson, Nancy Qian, Imran Rasul, Andrei Shleifer, Jon Weigel, and many seminar and conference participants. Yang acknowledges financial support from the Harvard Data Science Initiative; Yuchtman acknowledges financial support from the British Academy under the Global Professorships program. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.