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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.

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

1 hour ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.