Will China win the technology cold war?
Ian, you predict a technology cold war – what do mean?
There are two big tech models out there at the moment: China and the United States. China’s technological development is being driven by the state, whereas in the US it’s being driven by the private sector. These dueling models will eventually fragment the global market and what we generally refer to as the “tech commons”. This increases the potential of confrontation between the two countries, and is massively important for the global market as the two models vie for market dominance in third- party countries like India and Brazil, even european countries are in play.
Will that be the big confrontation between the US and China in the first half of this century?
Yes. But it certainly won’t be in the military sphere - the US dominates that field thoroughly, outspending china roughly 3-to-1 when it comes to military expenditure. And the dustup probably won’t be purely economic either since that’s an area where there’s a great deal of interdependence and mutual benefit. Tech is the big dividing line, and where we’re most likely to see tensions play out.
Who of the two is better equipped for that?
It’s hard to say at the moment. As an actual government, it’s clearly China: Beijing is betting big on Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, while Washington focuses on traditional manufacturing and industrial sectors - that’s probably a mistake. But the tech push from the American side is really coming from Silicon Valley. It’s still not clear which model will win out in the end. If Artificial Intelligence turns out to be more like the Manhattan Project - where throwing lots of people and computing power at the problem is the determining factor - China wins. But if it’s more like climate change, where there are lots of dead ends and false starts and the final result is a combination of different technologies, it’s the US/Silicon Valley that’s the favorite.
How will that kind of cold war evolve over time?
It’s entirely possible that the US might try to make those Silicon Valley tech companies more „strategic“, the way Lockheed was during the US-Soviet Cold War. Otherwise there is a danger, that the US sovereignty erodes.
If US-based multinationals have little loyalty to the US central government, and presently, there's a strong libertarian ethic among them, plus the Trump-Administration isn't very interested in trying to make them „strategic“, but they can't get into China and are competing against state-supported Chinese firms, those companies will become less American/patriotic and more „globalist“. But they'll have tremendous wealth and influence over citizens in the developed world. That in turn would erode US sovereignty.
What do you think about the so called Social Credit System, that the Chinese government is going to establish?
It’s an enormously powerful tool that bolsters authoritarianism. Just last week I read that trains in China are making announcements urging passengers to obey train laws lest they negatively affect their credit scores. It’s a really powerful tool to keep people in line and tamp down social dissent. Yet for all that power, it remains really underappreciated in the West.
Which role does Europa play in that scenario?
It could very well bring the US and Europe closer together as it becomes clear that neither can effectively play in China and the economies that it already dominates. But that will take a while - right now there’s still plenty of Trump and Post-Snowden mistrust across Europe, and plenty of internal problems that draw the attention of European politicians.
Looking at the recent breakthroughs in AI and Genetics - are you a technology-optimist?
I’m an existential optimist. I’m delighted and find it extraordinary that we are even here. And at a time of such profound change and opportunity no less. But on whether we’ll end up using tech constructively, I’m still agnostic. The dangers are much greater, but we usually see the best from humanity when the stakes are highest. Let’s say i’m hopeful.