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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

When politics is a sideshow at the beginning of a brave new world

Geopolitically and in terms of new technologies we are at once in a millennium watershed, writes David Rothkopf

In an increasingly digitised world, artificial intelligence used by banks and credit card firms, is trying to get you to buy what they want you to buy. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
In an increasingly digitised world, artificial intelligence used by banks and credit card firms, is trying to get you to buy what they want you to buy. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

The loud orange tornado blew into the small mountain village of Davos, Switzerland last week and, as usual, demonstrated that political spin and wind can be combined to produce high levels of disruption. Nothing was safe. Other world leaders were blown aside and the carefully prepared programme narratives the architects of the World Economic Forum spent a year crafting were knocked to pieces.

Mr Trump has that effect. When you combine the most powerful job in the world with one of the most unpredictable public personalities in modern history it is hard to tear your eyes away from the resulting spectacle. Big shots crowded the Congress Hall theatre in which he spoke. He was given an adulatory reception by the WEF organisers including an introduction by forum founder Dr Klaus Schwab that referred to the “biased” coverage Mr Trump has received in the press. And in an instant, when he took the stage, Mr Trump’s narcissistic view of the world and reality as depicted in the media came into brief alignment.

But, in retrospect, Mr Trump actually neither said nor did anything of importance in Davos. He had some bilateral meetings of no note. He alienated the Palestinians and effectively reiterated that the US policy in that area of the world is essentially all-in behind the Israelis. He had a meeting with British prime minister Theresa May designed to show the US-UK relationship is on solid footing even as new reports suggested he has told her he won’t visit the country without a promise that there will be no protests against him. (And of course, as soon as that story broke, the British press was abuzz with reports that if Mr Trump does visit the UK he will be met by the biggest protests in its history.)

What is more, while Mr Trump commanded the spotlight, there were other more important stories unfolding that were by any measure far more important than even the colorful antics of a man who looks increasingly likely to be the U.S. president for a very short period of time.

The New York Times, shortly after the event, delivered the message with a headline “At Davos, the Real Star May Have Been China, Not Trump.” The thrust of the article is that while Mr Trump was generating headlines the Chinese were busily meeting with world leaders and advancing their now rather aggressive strategy of forging international ties both as part of their Belt and Road initiative, which the Chairman of Siemens called “the new WTO” in the same article, and through a wide ranging series of other meetings that suggest the Chinese government has very different ideas about diplomacy and overseas investment than the American president does.

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A comment by another attending chief executive underscored even more starkly the contrast between what the media chose to cover and what was really important at this year’s summit in the Swiss Alps. Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, the most highly-valued publicly traded company in the world, said, “AI is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on. I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire.”

Somehow this seems more urgently important than Mr Trump’s tired “America first” rhetoric and his litany of lies and distortions designed to enhance his faltering image. He is, to use a term his allies used disparagingly of his political enemies during the 2016 American campaign, a snowflake flittering briefly down to earth and then melting upon contact with bigger realities. The advent of the age of artificial intelligence is a watershed in the history of mankind. Within just a few years it seems certain that machines will possess ample intelligence to displace almost half of all US jobs within the next two decades.

That’s a big deal. But it may be the least of the dislocations that will be caused by machines that can think like or even better than humans. We’re already confronting ethical challenges that have yet to be fully debated or understood, like who is liable when a machine like an autonomous vehicle makes a decision to save one life rather than another, a driver versus a pedestrian, for example? Or what are the rules of war when the battle is between smart machines and people? Or what happens when the rich corner the market on the benefits of the most powerful AI to win market share and inequality grows. Or what happens when innovation outstrips the ability of regulators to keep up? To even understand the implications of changes? Should progress be allowed to go on unfettered? Do we want to even see what happens if machines become smarter than people? Even just some people? Who will decide? Who has the philosophical gravitas or moral authority or in depth knowledge to judge?

Geopolitically and in terms of new technologies we are at once in a millennium watershed. That is risky territory, but it is even riskier if we allow ourselves to be too distracted by the sideshow of today’s passing personalities. If last week’s World Economic Forum had a message, that was it. We ignore it at our peril.