Thought Provoking

What is at stake in this AI based techno-economic war between the West and China?

By Vinod Khosla on

This post also appears on Medium.

The nation that emerges as the leader in technology, particularly in AI, in the coming two decades, will be in the commanding position for the global distribution of technology, economic benefits and influence, and thus — values. If Western values are to win globally we must approach AI cautiously but not at the expense of losing the AI race. AI regulation could tilt the race in our adversary’s direction, a risk that is not being adequately considered in the debate around regulation.

The race is on. This techno-economic war has been precipitously accelerated by COVID, the war in Ukraine, and the unveiling of the power of AI in the last two years. COVID highlighted the need for supply chain and resource independence. China holds hostage resources ranging from steel and rare earths, EV batteries and our manufacturing supply chain dependency. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine revealed the danger of energy dependence on other despots. The ascendance of President Xi as the autocrat defining China’s directions for life, and his aggressive foreign policy vision, has changed the race for which value system dominates the planet and why the Western values coalition must win.

While this techno-economic war has many theaters, it is chiefly AI that will decide the winner because of its multiplicative power on labor and expertise. For the winner, it will accelerate GDP growth and allow for a very low cost of sharing its benefits globally. Today, we are experiencing a Cambrian Explosion in AI. It is likely to be a decades-long cycle of innovation and an economic turbocharger for global GDP — from minerals and resource discovery, faster scientific discovery, near free content and entertainment, cheaper labor through robotics, more efficient utilization of transportation through self-driving, better healthcare and education, and much more. Imagine exporting near free AI doctors, entertainers and educators globally! It is exactly why the AI winner will have the option to project global economic benefits and influence.

China is responding. It is why I believe China’s 14th five-year plan, overseen by President Xi, specifically declares their intent to win in AI and 5G wireless. The former will allow for economic power while the latter allows China to surveil all citizens in 100+ countries by controlling their telecommunications networks and TikTok.

What can the West do? Technological leadership is an existential priority worthy of wartime mobilization. The West can help itself by getting a massive influx of highly educated tech talent. A bipartisan US “talent importation bill” separate from the broader, more contentious issue of immigration reform is imperative. Additionally, we should have strong export controls, as well as leverage our venture and technology ecosystem. We must not allow foreign companies to set up offices for AI research in the US. Chinese company Baidu has set up AI research operations in Silicon Valley trying to poach AI talent.

Aggressive AI regulation or calls for slowdown, if enacted, would add further, material, risk that we lose some momentum in this race.

Are the risks of this war and this AI technology worth taking? AI could dramatically and disproportionately alter the economic landscape and offer great power to either the West or to China. I expect that in a mere twenty years, up to 80% of 80% of all economically valuable human functions could be capable of being done with AI. This could eliminate the need for work and bestow great abundance, GDP growth, and productivity growth. It is possible that the West will resist deployment of these technologies due to labor dislocations, while China will use Tiananmen-style tactics to accelerate them. Much has been written about the risks of AI and these risks are real. But it is a far greater risk to let our adversaries have unconstrained power. Imagine Chinese bots surreptitiously individually influencing Western voters with private conversations, free of “alignment constraints” that worry American academics and philosophers. To address these risks, inadvertent and advertent, we must substantially increase our research and investment in safety technologies, but not aggressively regulate AI.

If one is to believe that China will peak in the next decade because of demographics, slowing growth, and a large debt burden, we must believe it will get more desperate to win and be more dangerous in its waning years — the opposite of a Thucydides Trap. This is why we must not be at their mercy while we debate hypothetical scenarios and slow down progress with misprioritized regulation.

We may have to worry about sentient AI destroying humanity but the risk of an asteroid hitting earth is likely larger and the risk of China destroying our system is significantly larger in my opinion.

Is there an alternative to the AI race? Global treaties have been proposed as solutions. AI can be more impactful than nuclear or biowarfare technology but AI alone lacks the verifiability of nuclear and biowarfare technologies when deployed. This makes global treaties unenforceable and a fool’s errand. Are you ready to trust Xi and his Putin-like appendages with the planet’s future?

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