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Monday, May 20, 2024
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The future of the real world is artificial

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AS IF the changes all around us aren’t bewildering enough, a world run by artificial intelligence draws inexorably nearer. With that new pantheon of mini-gods – the technocrats – sitting smugly pretty, it’s hardly surprising. Ostensibly the key question is who will exploit AI to the fullest. There are only two contenders: the US and China.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: for the victor, lasting technological, economic and military dominance. It’s an international Battle of the Boffins, engagingly analysed by American businessman Handel Jones in a new bookWhen AI Rules the World: China, the US, and the Race to Control a Smart Planet.

Jones’s central thesis is this. The US must act now, chiefly through more focused federal government support for AI. Otherwise, by 2030 its opponent will enjoy a commanding, and by 2040 an unassailable, lead: ‘Major parts of society will be under the control of AI, and it will be too late.’

The CCP issued a bold statement of intent in 2015, when it announced its Made in China 2025 initiative. The goal was to transform the country from a labour-intensive manufacturing economy to high-tech supremacy within a decade. Jones wouldn’t bet against it. Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China has ‘lifted more than 800million people out of poverty to become an upper-middle-income country’. Historical memory is crucial here. China is actuated not by a parvenu mentality but a determination to retake its former seat at the top table.

As Jones reminds us, for most of the last three and a half millennia, since the founding of the Shang Dynasty, China was the ‘biggest, most populous, richest, and technologically advanced nation on Earth’. Hence the name it gave itself: the Middle Kingdom, located in the centre of the universe. In Chinese eyes, the remarkable rise of the US is a comparatively recent – and reversible – phenomenon. 

Despite the hyper-liberal Biden administration, and the lucrative Sinophilia of senior Western politicians and academics, one hopes the West will prevail. But by the book’s end, superpower top-doggery takes second place to the fate of mankind. The sheer scale and profundity of the changes afoot, whoever emerges triumphant, is what lingers.

The list of actual or potential AI applications is notably long. AI-assisted virtual reality (VR) devices are already being used in the US military. As Jones argues, ‘teaching soldiers, sailors, and airmen to fight on simulators is far less dangerous and far less expensive than conducting real-world war games’. (But is it as effective?)

Rolls-Royce workers wear headsets with data loaded on to the lenses. This teaches them how to assemble critical components of jet engines long before they reach a real assembly line. AI will facilitate long-distance surgery. And there’s a Virtual Reality Medical Centre in San Diego helping people overcome their fear of flying, agoraphobia, claustrophobia and public speaking. 

An architect using VR can enter the virtual space of a planned building to view technical specifications, plumbing or an electrical system. ‘Smart farming’ will use robot pickers with AI capabilities to compare vegetables with the template of perfection.  

Jones envisions students experiencing a 3D university without setting foot on campus. With AI, they can ‘visit a zoo, view the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or walk on the surface of the moon’. In the travel industry, in a virtual space it’s possible to ‘walk through the castles of Spain, a Hong Kong market, the glaciers of Iceland, or along the beaches of the Bahamas’. (But how do we taste the local beer?)       

Though measured and informative, the book does leave significant gaps. Jones pays little attention to the technical problems which have hindered various AI projects, such as autonomous cars. By contrast, another new study, recently featured in Irreverend, claims that machine-learning will never rule the world because we cannot adequately mimic neural networks. How can we create genuinely ‘thinking’ machines when we only dimly understand the human brain?

More importantly, the author is strikingly sanguine about dystopian repercussions, granting them a mere two paragraphs. AI may ‘drastically reduce opportunities for employment’, he concedes, while VR headsets will mean that ‘as people withdraw into their own virtual realities, the “real” world might become a far emptier and hollower place’.

Such ominous – and conceivable – scenarios merit closer scrutiny. Mind you, if a headset somehow transported me to a woke-free Britain, I’d probably accept the bargain.     

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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