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So You Want to Prevent a Dystopia?

So You Want to Prevent a Dystopia?

When it comes to artificial intelligence there's good news and bad news. On the plus side, AI could save millions of lives a year by putting robots behind the wheels of cars or helping scientists discover new medicines. On the other hand, it could put you under surveillance, because a computer thinks your recent behavior patterns suggest you might be about to commit a crime.

So, how to reap the benefits and avoid the dystopia? It's a question of how AI systems are built, what companies and governments do with them, and how they handle basic problems of privacy, fairness, and accountability. Here's a quick rundown of how different countries (or groups of countries) are approaching the challenge of putting ethical guardrails around AI.


The European Union is trying to do the same thing in AI that it's already done on digital privacy: Putting citizens' rights first – but without scaring off the tech companies that can also deliver AI's benefits. A new set of ethical guidelines published this week gives AI engineers checklists they can use to make sure they are on the right track on issues like privacy and data quality, though it stopped short of blacklisting certain applications. Toothy regulation this is not, but just getting these ethical questions mapped out on official EU letterhead is a start. Although the guidelines are voluntary, one of the architects behind the bloc's data privacy policies has argued that legal heft will eventually be required to keep AI safe for people and to uphold democracy.

The US, meanwhile, is taking its usual hands-off approach. The Trump administration has asked bureaucrats to develop better technical standards for "trustworthy" AI, but it doesn't directly broach the subject of ethics. But in the private sector there's been progress: the IEEE, an international standards organization, recently dropped a 300-page bomb of "Ethically Aligned Design" thinking, which lists eight general principles that designers should follow, including respect for human rights, giving people control over their data, and guarding against potential abuse. Still, it's a thorny challenge. Google's AI ethics board was recently scuttled after employees objected to conservative board member's views on transgender rights and immigration.

Then there's China, where bureaucrats are wrestling with ethical issues like data privacy and transparency in AI algorithms, too. Like the EU, China wants to get out front on global regulation – partly because it thinks its internet companies will grow faster if it can set standards for AI, and partly because Beijing doesn't want a rerun of the situation from 30 years ago when other counties set the rules of the road for the internet first. But while China may share European views on policing bias in algorithms, there is likely to be a sharper difference on issues like privacy, "moral" or "ethical" definitions in the AI world, and how ethics norms should be enforced.

The bottom line: Defining and enforcing acceptable boundaries of AI is a long term challenge, but the guardrails that governments and industry put in place early on may determine whether we're heading for a new era of human progress or a mash-up of Blade Runner and Minority Report.

Wales, early 19th century: During breaks from his law studies, William Robert Grove indulges in his passion for science to become an inventor. On his honeymoon in Europe, he learns about the new energy source everyone's talking about: electricity. After learning that electricity allows water to be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, his intuition leads him to an idea that ends up making him a pioneer of sustainable energy production.

Watch the story of William Robert Grove in Eni's MINDS series, where we travel through time seeking scientists.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

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Afghanistan frustrated nineteenth-century British imperialists for 40 years, and ejected the Soviet army in 1989 after a bloody decade there. And though American and NATO forces ousted the Taliban government in 2001 over its support for al-Qaeda, there's no good reason for confidence that nearly 20 years of occupation have brought lasting results for security and development across the country.

But… could China succeed where other outsiders have failed – and without a costly and risky military presence? Is the promise of lucrative trade and investment enough to ensure a power-sharing deal among Afghanistan's warring factions?

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Stockholm on Europe In 60 Seconds:

Is there a military coup ongoing in Armenia?

Well, it isn't a military coup as of yet, but it's not far from it either. This is the turmoil that is resulting from the war with Azerbaijan, which Armenia took a large death loss. What happened was that the head of the armed forces asked for the prime minister to resign. That was not quite a coup, but not very far from it. Now, the prime minister sacked the head of the armed forces, there's considerable uncertainty. Watch the space.

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In the fall of 2019, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic would change the world, Ian Bremmer asked Dr. Fauci what kept him up at night and he described a "a pandemic-like respiratory infection." Fast-forward to late February 2021 and Dr. Fauci tells Ian, "I think we are living through much of that worst nightmare." Dr. Fauci returns to GZERO World to take stock of the nightmare year and to paint a picture of what the end of the pandemic could look like—and when it could finally arrive.

Catch the full episode of GZERO World, where Dr. Fauci discusses the latest in vaccine roll out, schools re-openings, and plenty more, on US public television stations nationwide, beginning Friday, February 26. Check local listings.

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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Biden strikes Syria. Now what?

Quick Take