Jan 25, 2020 - Technology

How AI, surveillance and biometrics could converge in a tech arms race

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.”

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