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Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images

DAVOS, Switzerland — Historian and philosopher Yuval Harari urged the U.S. and China to stop AI, surveillance and biometrics from converging before it is too late.

The big picture: Harari passionately warned his Davos audience that humanity could become entirely subject to AI and biometrics, with risks including "data colonialism" and "digital dictatorships" that could imprison someone if, for example, their biological data suggests they are not sufficiently loyal.

  • “If we enter an arms race, then the arms race logic takes over,” Harari says of global competition around AI, robotics, bioengineering and other technologies. “And any hope of regulating and preventing the most dangerous developments of these technologies is lost.”

Warning of a world where algorithms analyze our biology and humans become “hackable animals,” he floated a scenario: Some countries may adopt an AI that analyzes your entire life — the parts you control and those you don’t — for hiring.  Others may resist it as dangerous, stressful and discriminatory.

  • That could create an economic imbalance, leading corporations in the second set of countries to press their governments to act.
  • “This is the race-to-the-bottom danger. If we enter an arms race situation in fields like AI, then it almost guarantees the worst outcomes in terms of privacy,” he told Axios in an interview.

But, it’s not too late to slow down or even stop the arms race, he says. 

  • “Nothing is really inevitable.” The Cold War threatened nuclear Armageddon but ended peacefully. 
  • That’s because the U.S. convinced enough people around the world to trust it had the best interests of people everywhere in mind, says Harari. 
  • “This was maybe the most powerful weapon in the American ideological arsenal.” 

Now, the U.S. and its rival powers are in every-man-for-himself mode.  

  • “The most worrying trend is the loss of trust globally and the deterioration of the global rules that are the basis for trust,” he says, referencing President Trump’s speech in Davos earlier this week.
  • And unlike launching nuclear weapons, where there is consensus about the downsides, countries and companies will believe deploying AI first gives them an advantage.

These challenges require the restoration of trust and leadership but also philosophical answers, Harari says, though he fears the world is facing "philosophical bankruptcy."

  • “For thousands of years, philosophers have been preparing for this moment, and so to deliver they need to engage with the new technology.”

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
Aug 6, 2020 - World

How the world's nuclear stockpiles have shifted since Hiroshima

Data: Federation of American Scientists; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

There are roughly 13,355 nuclear weapons in the world, with 91% of them belonging to Russia (6,370) or the U.S. (5,800), according to estimates from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

What to watch: China’s stockpile of around 290 warheads is “likely to grow further over the next decade” and put it firmly in the third spot among the world’s nuclear powers, according to analysts Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda.

5 hours ago - World

Top general: U.S. losing time to deter China

Stanley McChrystal. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Stanley McChrystal, a top retired general and Biden adviser, tells Axios that "China's military capacity has risen much faster than people appreciate," and the U.S. is running out of time to counterbalance that in Asia and prevent a scenario such as it seizing Taiwan.

Why it matters: McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently briefed the president-elect as part of his cabinet of diplomatic and national security advisers. President-elect Joe Biden is considering which Trump- or Obama-era approaches to keep or discard, and what new strategies to pursue.

Progressives shift focus from Biden's Cabinet to his policy agenda

Joe Biden giving remarks in Wilmington, Del., last month. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Some progressives tell Axios they believe the window for influencing President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet selections has closed, and they’re shifting focus to policy — hoping to shape Biden's agenda even before he’s sworn in.

Why it matters: The left wing of the party often draws attention for its protests, petitions and tweets, but this deliberate move reflects a determination to move beyond some fights they won't win to engage with Biden strategically, and over the long term.