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Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is currently on a diplomatic visit to Eswatini, the country’s last remaining ally on the vast African continent. The southern African country is hardly a natural ally for democratic Taiwan: King Mswati III has ruled the landlocked country of 1.1 million with an iron fist since he assumed the throne in 1986 at age 18. It’s the region’s last absolute monarchy.
What’s Tsai doing there? Eswatini is one of just 13 remaining countries worldwide that has not ditched ties with Taiwan in favor of relations with China, which views the self-ruled territory as part of the mainland. Since Tsai took office in 2016, Beijing has coaxed nine countries into switching alliances, most recently Honduras, and continues to pressure other holdouts to follow suit.
Tsai’s trip – notably on the heels of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to South Africa – saw Taipei dole out $1 million in funds to the kingdom. And it comes ahead of Taiwan’s election in Jan. 2024, where Tsai’s VP William Lai is ahead in the polls. (Tsai is term limited.)
A new game show gives current world leaders' clues to see if they can recognize former world leaders. In this episode, Xi Jinping and Joe Biden face off, but someone else seems to be the elephant in the room...
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That’s the question I set out to answer in my latest Foreign Affairs deep dive, penned with one of the top minds on artificial intelligence in the world, Inflection AI CEO and Co-Founder Mustafa Suleyman.
Just a year ago, there wasn’t a single world leader I’d meet who would bring up AI. Today, there isn’t a single world leader who doesn’t. In this short time, the explosive debut of generative AI systems like ChatGPT and Midjourney signaled the beginning of a new technological revolution that will remake politics, economies, and societies. For better and for worse.
As governments are starting to recognize, realizing AI’s astonishing upside while containing its disruptive – and destructive – potential may be the greatest governance challenge humanity has ever faced. If governments don’t get it right soon, it’s possible they never will.
Why AI needs to be governed
First, a disclaimer: I’m an AI enthusiast. I believe AI will drive nothing less than a new globalization that will give billions of people access to world-leading intelligence, facilitate impossible-to-imagine scientific advances, and unleash extraordinary innovation, opportunity, and growth. Importantly, we’re heading in this direction without policy intervention: The fundamental technologies are proven, the money is available, and the incentives are aligned for full-steam-ahead progress.
At the same time, artificial intelligence has the potential to cause unprecedented social, economic, political, and geopolitical disruption that upends our lives in lasting and irreversible ways.
In the nearest term, AI will be used to generate and spread toxic misinformation, eroding social trust and democracy; to surveil, manipulate, and subdue citizens, undermining individual and collective freedom; and to create powerful digital or physical weapons that threaten human lives. In the longer run, AI could also destroy millions of jobs, worsening existing inequalities and creating new ones; entrench discriminatory patterns and distort decision-making by amplifying bad information feedback loops; or spark unintended and uncontrollable military escalations that lead to war. Farther out on the horizon lurks the promise of artificial general intelligence (AGI), the still uncertain point where AI exceeds human performance at any given task, and the existential (albeit speculative) peril that an AGI could become self-directed, self-replicating, and self-improving beyond human control.
Experts disagree on which of these risks are more important or urgent. Some lie awake at night fearing the prospect of a superpowerful AGI turning humans into slaves. To me, the real catastrophic threat is humans using ever more powerful and available AI tools for malicious or unintended purposes. But it doesn’t really matter: Given how little we know about what AI might be able to do in the future – what kinds of threats it could pose, how severe and irreversible its damages could be – we should prepare for the worst while hoping for (and working toward) the best.
What makes AI so hard to govern
AI can’t be governed like any previous technology because it’s unlike any previous technology. It doesn’t just pose policy challenges; its unique features also make solving those challenges progressively harder. That is the AI power paradox.
For starters, the pace of AI progress is hyper-evolutionary. Take Moore’s Law, which has successfully predicted the doubling of computing power every two years. The new wave of AI makes that rate of progress seem quaint. The amount of computation used to train the most powerful AI models has increased by a factor of 10 every year for the last 10 years. Processing that once took weeks now happens in seconds. Yesterday’s cutting-edge capabilities are running on smaller, cheaper, and more accessible systems today.
As their enormous benefits become self-evident, AI systems will only grow bigger, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. And with each new order of magnitude, unexpected capabilities will emerge. Few predicted that training on raw text would enable large language models to produce coherent, novel, and even creative sentences. Fewer still expected language models to be able to compose music or solve scientific problems, as some now can. Soon, AI developers will likely succeed in creating systems capable of quasi-autonomy (i.e., able to achieve concrete goals with minimal human oversight) and self-improvement – a critical juncture that should give everyone pause.
Then there’s the ease of AI proliferation. As with any software, AI algorithms are much easier and cheaper to copy and share (or steal) than physical assets. Although the most powerful models still require sophisticated hardware to work, midrange versions can run on computers that can be rented for a few dollars an hour. Soon, such models will run on smartphones. No technology this powerful has become so accessible, so widely, so quickly. All this plays out on a global field: Once released, AI models can and will be everywhere. All it takes is one malign or “breakout” model to wreak worldwide havoc.
AI also differs from older technologies in that almost all of it can be characterized as “general purpose” and “dual use” (i.e., having both military and civilian applications). An AI application built to diagnose diseases might be able to create – and weaponize – a new one. The boundaries between the safely civilian and the militarily destructive are inherently blurred. This makes AI more than just software development as usual; it is an entirely new means of projecting power.
As such, its advancement is being propelled by irresistible incentives. Whether for its repressive capabilities, economic potential, or military advantage, AI supremacy is a strategic objective of every government and company with the resources to compete. At the end of the Cold War, powerful countries might have cooperated to arrest a potentially destabilizing technological arms race. But today’s tense geopolitical environment makes such cooperation much harder. From the vantage point of the world’s two superpowers, the United States and China, the risk that the other side will gain an edge in AI is greater than any theoretical risk the technology might pose to society or to their own domestic political authority. This zero-sum dynamic means that Beijing and Washington are focused on accelerating AI development, rather than slowing it down.
But even if the world’s powers were inclined to contain AI, there’s no guarantee they’d be able to, because, like most of the digital world, every aspect of AI is presently controlled by the private sector. I call this arrangement “technopolar,” with technology companies effectively exerting sovereignty over the rules that apply to their digital fiefdoms at the expense of governments. The handful of large tech firms that currently control AI may retain their advantage for the foreseeable future – or they may be eclipsed by a raft of smaller players as low barriers to entry, open-source development, and near-zero marginal costs lead to uncontrolled proliferation of AI. Either way, AI’s trajectory will be largely determined not by governments but by private businesses and individual technologists who have little incentive to self-regulate.
Any one of these features would strain traditional governance models; all of them together render these models inadequate and make the challenge of governing AI unlike anything governments have faced before.
The “technoprudential" imperative
For AI governance to work, it must be tailored to the specific nature of the technology and the unique challenges it poses. But because the evolution, uses, and risks of AI are inherently unpredictable, AI governance can’t be fully specified at the outset. Instead, it must be as innovative, adaptive, and evolutionary as the technology it seeks to govern.
Our proposal? “Technoprudentialism.” That’s a big word, but essentially it’s about governing AI much in the same way that we govern global finance. The idea is that we need a system to identify and mitigate risks to global stability posed by AI before they occur, without choking off innovation and the opportunities that flow from it, and without getting bogged down by everyday politics and geopolitics. In practice, technoprudentialism requires the creation of multiple complementary governance regimes – each with different mandates, levers, and participants – to address the various aspects of AI that could threaten geopolitical stability, guided by common principles that reflect AI’s unique features.
Mustafa and I argue that AI governance needs to be precautionary, agile, inclusive, impermeable, and targeted. Built atop these principles should be a minimum of three AI governance regimes: an Intergovernmental Panel on Artificial Intelligence for establishing facts and advising governments on the risks posed by AI, an arms control-style mechanism for preventing an all-out arms race between them, and a Geotechnology Stability Board for managing the disruptive forces of a technology unlike anything the world has seen.
The 21st century will throw up few challenges as daunting or opportunities as promising as those presented by AI. Whether our future is defined by the former or the latter depends on what policymakers do next.
Hard Numbers: Aussie referendum, West Bank violence, South African peace plan, Titanic sub search, Polish highway to Hel
52-19: With 52 votes in favor and 19 against, Australia's Senate approved holding a national referendum on reforming the constitution to recognize Indigenous people. The plebiscite, to be scheduled within six months, will ask Australians if they want to establish a committee to advise parliament on anything affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
6: Six Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces raided a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin on Monday. Palestinian militants responded with roadside bombs, while Israel deployed a helicopter gunship in the area for the first time since the second Intifada some 20 years ago.
10: On his trip with fellow African leaders to Kyiv and Moscow, President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled South Africa's 10-point peace plan for Ukraine. The proposal seems to favor Ukraine, but Vladimir Putin said he'd consider it, and what South Africa really wants is unimpeded exports of Ukrainian grain and Russian fertilizer.
96: The US Coast Guard is searching for a private sub that vanished Sunday off the coast of southeastern Canada while en route to explore the wreck of the Titanic. The five passengers — one of whom is believed to be British billionaire Hamish Hardin — reportedly had 96 hours of oxygen left when they went missing.666: Poland's infamous No. 666 bus route, which goes to the resort town of Hel, will turn its last number upside down on June 24. The bus company agreed to the change under pressure from religious conservatives worried about “spreading Satanism.” We can understand exactly what the Hel they were thinking, but note that the Polish word for the infernal underworld is is actually pieklo!
Juneteenth, now a federal holiday in the US, celebrates the end of slavery. But as everything is now political in America, at the state level, observation varies largely (but not entirely) along ideological lines. The issue has also been wrapped up in the ensuing culture wars over how to memorialize ugly parts of American history.
Still, there are some surprises. Texas, for instance, was the first state in the country to make Juneteenth a state holiday way back in 1980. Meanwhile, in deep-blue California, state employees can choose to take it off but only if they trade in a personal day.
We take a look at which states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees, and which don’t.
Hard Numbers: Hip-hop hits half a century, rising death toll from Hawaii fires, Malaysia checks rainbow Swatches, abortion tops US concerns, India passes new data law
50: This Friday marks 50 years since the date commonly recognized as the birthday of hip hop, when Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc rocked a party at a residential building on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, cutting together drum breaks for people to dance to and throw rhymes over. The New York-born art form — which encompasses MC’ing, DJ’ing, breakdancing, and graffiti — has since spread around the globe to become the single most influential worldwide cultural movement of the past half-century. For a look at what the culture was like in the early days, there’s nothing better than the 1982 cult-classic film “Wild Style.”
55: The death toll from devastating wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, has now risen to 55. Strong winds from Hurricane Dora and dry conditions fueled by climate change contributed to the blazes. But scientists say the growth of a "highly flammable" invasive plant ruining the natural ecosystem is also making it easier for fires to spread.
3: You know what time it is in Malaysia? Time to let you know that the government there on Thursday imposed a 3-year prison sentence for owning or wearing a watch from Swatch’s Pride Collection, which celebrates the LGBTQ+ community. Malaysia still criminalizes same-sex relationships and recently canceled a major music festival after the lead singer of British band The 1975 bashed the country’s anti-gay laws and kissed a male bandmate on stage. Here’s a look at the global divide over LGBTQ+ love.
77: As the 2024 presidential election looms, what’s the most important issue for US voters? Abortion, which topped the list for 77% of Americans in a new Economist/YouGov poll. Here’s a GZERO explainer on why the issue is so sensitive in the US.
30 million: India has passed a landmark new data privacy law that imposes fines of up to $30 million for mishandling user data. But critics have focused on a provision in the law that permits the government to block content in the public interest. Given the broader crackdown on independent media in India in recent years, there are concerns the law could be used to stifle criticism of the government.
Research indicates that neurodivergent individuals hold key competencies to meet this demand, yet their unemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 80%.
As part of its initiative to build an inclusive workplace for all, Bank of America has improved its hiring and support process to recognize and elevate the unique talents of neurodivergent employees.
What We're Watching: US-China tech race, Ukraine-Russia confusion, Greek train politics, world's most populous "country"
Who's winning the US-China tech race?
China is now ahead of the US in 37 out of 44 types of advanced technology, according to a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. These include artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics — all key to winning the race to dominate global tech. Beijing is finally reaping the benefits of decades and vast sums of money invested in scientific research, a priority for Xi Jinping. So, can China declare victory? Not so fast. The study points out that it’s not easy to turn cutting-edge research milestones into manufacturing prowess. In other words, the Chinese might have acquired the technology to make the most advanced quantum computers in the world, but the country still lacks the capacity to mass-produce them at the same quality standards as less powerful American-made models (this applies, for instance, to semiconductors). For now, at least, China is not yet eating America's tech lunch.
Fatal attack in Russia: whodunit?
Kyiv and the Kremlin are trading accusations after an apparent attack in the Western Russian province of Bryansk, which the local governor says killed two civilians and wounded a child. President Putin blamed the attack on Ukrainian “terrorists,” but Ukraine denies responsibility and points out that a Russian anti-Kremlin group calling itself the “Russian Volunteer Corps” has in fact claimed responsibility. Little is known about this group, and some have wondered whether the attack might even be a false flag operation by Russia to escalate the war. The Bryansk attack follows a series of Ukrainian drone strikes deep inside Russia earlier this week, which exposed weaknesses in the Kremlin’s air defenses. Should the paramilitary group have acted alone, the raid would underscore the volatility of the conflict and the potential for any violent acts to escalate the chaos. We’ll be watching to see whether the saboteurs were part of a government plot or a paramilitary attack.
Greek train tragedy gets political
Days after Greece experienced the worst train crash in its history, recriminations are already flying. In Athens, protesters hurled stones at the offices of the state railway company in anger over the deaths of at least 57 people killed when a passenger train collided with a freight train on Tuesday. Ahead of national elections this spring, the crash has put Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotaki on the defensive because of a series of reports about Greece’s decrepit transport infrastructure. Greece’s state railway system has come under scrutiny in recent years, largely due to its poor safety record (it had the highest fatality rate of 29 countries examined in 2022 by the European Union). But speaking of the EU, the plot thickens: Some analysts say Greece’s neglect of its rail infrastructure is at least partly due to the austerity measures that Athens was forced to impose in 2009 in exchange for bailouts from the EU and other international creditors.