Containment or Unleashing of New Technologies?

We definitely cannot change the size of planet Earth, but if we want to survive, we urgently need to improve international cooperation.
Containment or Unleashing of New Technologies?
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The rapid development of innovative technologies for years has been the subject of trade-offs weighing their potential benefits versus risks. A characteristic perspective relates to the improvement of AI, eventually reaching or even exceeding human intelligence. Turned dystopian, such scenarios envisage a future where human freedom and self-determination are subjugated by robots or machines. The horror increases when a human dictator can be dispensed with for exploitation and oppression as AI gains autonomous agency, i.e., the ability to act independently from its developers/creators.

Of course, this must be prevented at all costs, but a prevailing consensus still has it that this will actually not happen overnight. So, it seems justifiable to focus primarily on the positive effects of further developing and training AI. Foremost, enormous time and efficiency gains can be expected in all conceivable production and analysis processes, leading to unprecedented leaps in productivity, cost savings, competitive advantage, and thus extra profits for the technology leaders. In economic terms, therefore, everything seems to speak against slowing down or even limiting technological progress. But job losses resulting from the advances of AI that lead to unacceptable social hardship also need to be considered as well as the usurpation of competitive advantages through the formation of monopolies. This raises new questions about the division of labour between private enterprise and national state regulation, which leads to questions of interstate regulatory harmonisation.

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If we want people and societies to benefit from the digital transformation and innovation, we need internationally agreed standards that are fit for the task.

A number of opposing drivers must therefore be distinguished:  

  1. The entrepreneurial dynamics, which are accelerating and globally targeting scale, profits, competitive advantage,                            
  2. National safety and order regulations, which are territorially limited and therefore largely ineffective in the face of internationally operating companies,
  3.  Rivalries between the great powers, which are aimed at containing only the geopolitical adversary and, finally                                                                        
  4. Overarching objectives focusing on ethics and broader environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. Their implementation often succumbing to the stronger economic or power-politics incentives mentioned under 1. – 3.

A compromise between drivers 1. and 4., based on the anticipation of unforeseeable risks from unbridled technological progress, has been attempted several times on a voluntary basis. A particularly well-known example are the AI Principles of Asilomar from August 11, 2017, which were adopted at a conference at a resort with the same name on the Monterey Peninsula in western California and signed by almost all well-known names in the tech sector, including Elon Musk and Sam Altman.

In view of the exponentially accelerating opportunities and risks with the launch of ChatGPT by OpenAI at the end of November 2022, a further call was made to all AI developers on 22 March 2023 for a moratorium of at least 6 months on further AI training to avert its spinning out of human control - with again over 30,000 signatories. Italy initially imposed a ban on Chat GPT. Other than that the race for optimal market penetration continued unabated.

Since 1992 the UN Department for Social and Economic Affairs has developed an international agenda with the support of UN member states to promote the comprehensive ethics, and ESG objectives, mentioned in point 4 above. In 2015 this resulted in the proclamation of the 17 SDGs (sustainable development goals). In the financial sector, this led to a veritable fad in sustainable ESG investing, until follow-up audits raised embarrassing questions on the substantiation of claims made to the investing public. So far, there has not been an internationally binding agreement on implementation processes and sanctions for non-compliance.

Even so, there are serious negotiations ongoing in the EU to ban AI with regard to biometric monitoring, emotion recognition and predictive policing (probability calculations for the commission of crimes expected in the future) of course with ongoing optimisation of “useful” applications.

The tension between innovation, increased productivity, and geopolitical and ethical concerns (drivers 1.-3. on the one hand and 4. on the other hand) is obvious.

Next time, the technological breakthrough may possibly come from AI, or the field of synthetic biology, in which DNA manipulation with the support of AI can be used to produce highly effective new vaccines – but also deadly pathogens.

The history of nuclear weapons is an example of technological innovation whereby geopolitical hegemonic striving was restricted through containment efforts. However, the “balance of terror” that has been maintained to this day due to the fear of an all-out devastating counterattack by the attacked party is by no means stable, as new technological breakthroughs can very quickly lead to a shift in the geopolitical balance of power. Next time, the technological breakthrough may possibly come from AI, or the field of synthetic biology, in which DNA manipulation with the support of AI can be used to produce highly effective new vaccines – but also deadly pathogens.

Against this broader background, the previously generally dominant Western belief in free trade and globalisation, which has already suffered a setback due to Russia's aggression in Ukraine, is gradually giving way to a sentiment of deep general uncertainty which is resonating in the broader electorate. As a result, the technology race has intensified further, but with a new, more narrow emphasis on protecting the respective national interest, and the state as the protector and guarantor of jobs through substantial investments and high subsidies in promising future technologies.

Progress in implementing the overarching objectives of ethics, and ESG mentioned under 4. above, requires close international cooperation and agreement, and cannot be expected given the current increasing geopolitical tensions and relapse in focus on narrow national interests. The benefits of “good” technological advances would also be significantly higher when underpinned by an open, free, and progressive mindset, while perceptions of threats only increase under bloc-like isolationist conditions.

It is therefore to be hoped that the currently shockingly high popularity of national solo efforts will soon be succeeded by their reassessment as a strategically unbeneficial path. There are indeed initial but unmistakable signals of a rapprochement and increasing international collaboration.

But scepticism remains the order of the day. The Hungarian-American mathematician and computer science pioneer John von Neumann, who was also heavily involved in the “Manhattan Project” to develop the atomic bomb, put it in his essay “Can We Survive Technology?” from 1955 as follows: The great globe itself is in a rapidly maturing crisis – a crisis attributable to the fact that the environment in which technological progress must occur has become both undersized and underorganised.

We definitely cannot change the size of planet Earth, but if we want to survive, we urgently need to improve international cooperation.

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