US-China strategic calculus

Sam Altman the CEO of OpenAI, the company which has introduced ChatGPT and other pathbreaking artificial intelligence (AI) tools, testified before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on May 16. He gave an account of the enormous and positive impact which the new AI systems will inevitably make in various areas of human life. At the same time, he emphasized the steps that his company was taking to reduce the harmful though unintended effects of AI. He also said “OpenAI believes that regulation of AI is essential”. He urged that regulation should balance “incentivizing safety while ensuring that people are able to access the technologies benefits”. In typical American fashion he urged “It is also essential that a technology as powerful as AI is developed with democratic values in mind”. Finally, striking a nationalist posture, he held that his company was committed to “maintain US leadership in key areas of AI”.

Till about fifteen years ago US pre-eminence in the frontier areas of technology was clear. Some frontier technologies were being developed in Europe and Japan as well but China and India were far behind. However, in the past decade and a half China has, in addition to remaining the factory of the world and with enormous capital reserves, has also made major progress in many advanced technologies including ICT. This has deeply troubled the US and it would not be an exaggeration to assert that American policy makers did not anticipate that China will be able to go so rapidly ahead in science and technology.

This is not the first time that the US made such a strategic miscalculation. It did so in the case of nuclear weapons technology. After the Second World War it was almost certain that its monopoly of nuclear weapons will continue for years (even if there were a few US scientists who did not accept this belief) but that was not to be. The Soviet Union was itself working on a nuclear weapons programme from the early 1940s which it accelerated after the US dropped atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There have also been persistent reports of Soviet scientists receiving assistance from material gathered by the country’s spies about the US programme. There is however no conclusive evidence of how much help was provided to Soviet scientists by material gathered through Soviet espionage. In any event the Soviets conducted their nuclear weapons test in August 1949 and ushered in an era of dangerous strategic competition.

The world is undergoing the fourth industrial revolution focused on AI, robotics and the internet of things. Many countries are gaining ground in the applications based on these new technologies. These are no doubt important for economic and social progress and popular welfare but a country’s real strength in the critical areas of science and technology comes through the development of new and verifiable concepts and ideas and knowledge. That requires investments in academic infrastructure for the production of human capital. Besides, society as a whole has to cultivate a scientific temper. That does not mean that faith is no longer significant for individuals but religion has to get relegated to the personal space. This seems to be occurring in the advanced societies as well as in China. Thus, the hope that Altman has expressed of the US remaining ahead of all countries in AI may not be there in the future though it is so at present. Naturally, this will impact, inter alia, global power equations.

In seeking regulation of AI to eliminate its unanticipated adverse social and economic consequences Altman was addressing US lawmakers. The question however is whether regulations imposed by a single country over its AI industry would be sufficient or whether there has to be international cooperation through binding conventions and global oversight bodies for this purpose. The world’s record of such cooperation has been good but not perfect in preventing technologies and materials which would go into the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. The Chemical and Biological Weapons elimination mechanisms are relevant in this regard. These are of universal applicability. At the same time the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) is deeply flawed for it was inherently discriminatory. Naturally, India did not accept the treaty when it was negotiated in the 1960s even though India was a votary of nuclear disarmament. These instances are being recalled because it seems difficult to envisage a global treaty to regulate AI development even though some technologists consider its unregulated growth as dangerous to humanity.

Altman’s desire that AI will be developed keeping democratic values in mind is relevant only to the extent that knowledge should be available to all and that the fruits of AI are not limited to the affluent. However, the digital divide within and between countries is a fact of life. Also, the development of science and technology in China is obviously not within a democratic system. If these parts of Altman’s views can be dismissed as untenable his cautions of the dangers to societies and economies and polities through the abuse or misuse of AI is not. As it is the social media which uses digital platforms has the power to inflict substantial social harm through the spread of fake news. Hence, there is need for companies and governments acting together to find new and innovative ways to ensure that fake news is not allowed to be spread. Such cooperation is all the more imperative with the new generation of generative AI technologies which will make the identification of deep fakes all the more problematic.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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