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Experts debate AI, climate change and global tech wars

By Liu Xia | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-12-13 20:12


Artificial intelligence has become an indispensable technology widely applied in social life, contributing to the widening gap between nations and making global governance increasingly urgent, said experts.

They made the remarks on Dec 10 at a conference with the theme understanding the challenges facing technopolitics and global governance given intersecting singularities like climate change, AI, great power competition and US-led tech decoupling.

The meeting was co-hosted by the School of Politics and International Relations and the Institute for Singularity Politics at East China Normal University, and led by Wu Guanjun, the dean of the School and Institute.

Wu remarked on the necessity of interdisciplinary approaches, as technology and related concerns touch on most if not all aspects of life, and not just human lives.

“With the rise of AI and threats associated with climate change and great power competition, we face existential challenges as well as opportunities that may harm or help us, but also fundamentally change what it means to be human or ‘intelligent’,” said Wu.

Péter Hajdu, distinguished professor of literature from Shenzhen University referred to the growing anxiety expressed in popular culture related to climate change and technological innovations, including the proliferation of apocalyptic scenarios before and after the pandemic, with many pessimistic for the future.

He said too often political discussions get bogged down over ideological differences and national competitions, while literature, including genres like climate fiction or “cli-fi” novels, can help us escape such confines, while also considering imaginative solutions or how we might prepare for difficult times ahead.

Cheng Manli, dean of the National Institute of Strategic Communication at Peking University, said that while resources and labor remain important for a country’s the competitiveness, technological advancement plays a key role in today’s global economic landscape.

Cheng said that failure to adopt AI technology quickly could lead to economic contraction, reduced employment opportunities, increased social instability, and other problems.

“Artificial intelligence will widen the gap between countries,” said Cheng. “Developing countries are becoming more dependent on developed countries as they pursue technological progress.”

Cheng added that China is using its own institutional and resource advantages to accelerate the pace of the global competition in AI and make a transition from technology-follower to innovation leader.

Echoing Cheng, Ye Shulan, a professor of politics and international relations at East China Normal University, said the urgent need for global governance of artificial intelligence is clear, as AI poses many challenges that cannot be solved by any single country.

“However, each country is racing to strengthen its own AI development, making cooperation difficult,” said Ye.

“Given the rapid pace of technological iteration, even achieving domestic AI governance is a very difficult task for a country, let alone global governance. This is a paradox that we are facing.”

“Can we really govern AI and how?” Shao Yilei, dean and distinguished researcher of the Shanghai Institute of Artificial Intelligence and Finance at East China Normal University argued that we should encourage rather than control the development of science, as science itself is beyond human control.

However, she pointed out, technology can be subject to human regulations and governance. For example, on Dec 8, the European Union agreed on the AI Act, the world’s very first attempt to regulate the use of artificial intelligence, in the context of fierce digital competition with the United States, China and other major powers.

Yang Yifan, associate professor of Politics and International Relations at East China Normal University, also pointed to the recent EU AI Act but emphasized it may offer a good foundation for improving China-EU cooperation to address shared technology security concerns, and thereby provide a starting point for building a global AI governance.

Tech competition in the new era

More than 30 scholars and industrial insiders from China and abroad shared their views around the topic at the conference, discussing digital competition or even the possibility of a new round of “tech war" in the context of major power politics.

“In an era of AI, international politics will be dominated by major powers, and may even evolve into superpower politics. Other countries may struggle to find a place in the international system”, Ye said.

Ye added that China has become the second most powerful country in the field of AI after the United States, but there is still a significant gap between the two countries that China needs to address.

In his keynote address, Men Honghua, dean of school of politics and international relations at Tongji University, placed the current challenges in historical context, expressing confidence. On the one hand, he said, the world is experiencing unprecedented changes. On the other hand, these include the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, coming at a critical moment in time.

Agreeing with Men, Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of Politics and International Relations at East China Normal University, said technology competition is not just about who has the fastest computers, the best chips and so on. “It’s also about how one’s society solves technological problems.”

“It’s how government and society work together for progress despite mounting challenges, including climate change, the pandemic, national development, and intensifying international competition,” said Mahoney.

Mahoney said that China might not have the most advanced technology in the world, but as an advanced technological society China is now unsurpassed, and this is also helping it close the remaining gaps that exist, be they in the basic sciences, chips, productive IPR, and so on.

“This is why China has taken such bold steps forward in green innovation and development and why it was so successful in fighting the pandemic, whereas we saw and continue to see the opposite in the US.”

Regarding the competition in the electric vehicle industry between China and Japan, Wu Zeying from Lingnan University of Hong Kong said Japan might ultimately achieve productive breakthroughs that validate the hydrogen approach, but this is far from certain and carries a number of opportunity costs in the meantime even if it works out later. “In contrast, China has prioritized industrial diversification as a strategic emphasis, with immediate and long-term benefits, including benefits for the environment.”

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