When compared with superstar corporations, governments appear slow, bloated, and out of touch. It’s tempting to dismiss them as headed for the trash can of history. However, another inevitable reaction of nation-states will be to use the tools of the coming wave to tighten their grip on power, taking full advantage to entrench their dominance.

In the 20th century, totalitarian regimes wanted planned economies, obedient populations, and controlled information ecosystems. They wanted complete hegemony. Every aspect of life was managed. Five-year plans dictated everything from the number and content of films to bushels of wheat expected from a given field. High modernist planners hoped to create pristine cities of stark order and flow. An ever-watchful and ruthless security apparatus kept it all ticking over. Power concentrated in the hands of a single supreme leader, capable of surveying the entire picture and acting decisively. Think Soviet collectivisation, Stalin’s five-year plans, Mao’s China, East Germany’s Stasi. This is government as dystopian nightmare. And so far at least, it has always gone disastrously wrong.

Despite the best efforts of revolutionaries and bureaucrats alike, society could not be bent into shape; it was never fully “legible” to the state, but a messy, ungovernable reality that would not conform with the purist dreams of the centre. Humanity is too multifarious, too impulsive to be boxed in like this. In the past, the tools available to totalitarian governments simply weren’t equal to the task. So those governments failed; they failed to improve quality of life, or eventually they collapsed or reformed. Extreme concentration wasn’t just highly undesirable; it was practically impossible.

The coming wave presents the disturbing possibility that this may no longer be true. Instead, it could initiate an injection of centralised power and control that will morph state functions into repressive distortions of their original purpose. Rocket fuel for authoritarians and for great power competition alike. The ability to capture and harness data at an extraordinary scale and precision; to create territory-spanning systems of surveillance and control, reacting in real-time; to put, in other words, history’s most powerful set of technologies under the command of a single body, would rewrite the limits of state power so comprehensively that it would produce a new kind of entity altogether.

Your smart speaker wakes you up. Immediately you turn to your phone and check your emails. Your smartwatch tells you you’ve had a normal night’s sleep and your heart rate is average for the morning. Already a distant organisation knows, in theory, what time you are awake, how you are feeling, and what you are looking at. You leave the house and head to the office, your phone tracking your movements, logging the keystrokes on your text messages and the podcast you listen to. On the way, and throughout the day, you are captured on CCTV hundreds of times. After all, this city has at least one camera for every ten people, maybe many more than that. When you swipe in at the office, the system notes your time of entry. Software installed on your computer monitors productivity down to eye movements. On the way home you stop to buy dinner. The supermarket’s loyalty scheme tracks your purchases. After eating, you binge-stream another TV series; your viewing habits are duly noted. Every glance, every hurried message, every half thought registered in an open browser or fleeting search, every step through bustling city streets, every heartbeat and bad night’s sleep, every purchase made or backed out of – it is all captured, watched, tabulated. And this is only a tiny slice of the possible data harvested every day, not just at work or on the phone, but at the doctor’s office or in the gym.

Almost every detail of life is logged, somewhere, by those with the sophistication to process and act on the data they collect. This is not some far-off dystopia. I’m describing daily reality for millions in a city like London. The only step left is bringing these disparate databases together into a single, integrated system: a perfect 21st-century surveillance apparatus. The preeminent example is, of course, China.

That’s hardly news, but what’s become clear is how advanced and ambitious the party’s program already is, let alone where it might end up in twenty or thirty years. Compared with the West, Chinese research into AI concentrates on areas of surveillance like object tracking, scene understanding, and voice or action recognition. Surveillance technologies are ubiquitous, and increasingly granular in their ability to home in on every aspect of citizens’ lives. They combine visual recognition of faces, gaits, and license plates with data collection – including bio-data – on a mass scale. Centralised services like WeChat bundle everything from private messaging to shopping and banking in one easily traceable place. Drive the highways of China, and you’ll notice hundreds of Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras tracking vehicles. (These exist in most large urban areas in the Western world, too.) During COVID quarantines, robot dogs and drones carried speakers blasting messages warning people to stay inside. Facial recognition software builds on the advances in computer vision, identifying individual faces with exquisite accuracy. When I open my phone, it starts automatically upon “seeing” my face: a small but slick convenience, but with obvious and profound implications.

Although the system was initially developed by corporate and academic researchers in the United States, nowhere embraced or perfected the technology more than China. Chairman Mao had said “the people have sharp eyes” when watching their neighbours for infractions against communist orthodoxy. By 2015 this was the inspiration for a massive “Sharp Eyes” facial recognition program that ultimately aspired to roll such surveillance out across no less than 100 percent of public space. A team of leading researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong went on to found SenseTime, one of the world’s largest facial recognition companies, built on a database of more than two billion faces. China is now the leader in facial recognition technologies, with giant companies like Megvii and CloudWalk vying with SenseTime for market share. Chinese police even have sunglasses with built-in facial recognition technology capable of tracking suspects in crowds.

Around half the world’s billion CCTV cameras are in China. Many have built-in facial recognition and are carefully positioned to gather maximal information, often in quasi-private spaces: residential buildings, hotels, and even karaoke lounges. A New York Times investigation found the police in Fujian Province alone estimated they held a database of 2.5 billion facial images. They were candid about its purpose: “controlling and managing people.” Authorities are also looking to suck in audio data – police in the city of Zhongshan wanted cameras that could record audio within a 300-foot radius – and close monitoring and storage of bio-data became routine in the COVID era.

Excerpted with permission from The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-first Century’s Greatest Dilemma, Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar, Penguin India.