April 22, 2023

The Middle Kingdom Vs. Silicon Valley

Generative AI will amplify, not diminish, clashes over values encoded in its algorithms.

Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels
Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels

If you want to know where the world is headed, the best indicator is how the most transformative technology of our time will be manifested across different political-cultural systems rooted in divergent civilizational foundations.

It is already clear that as generative artificial intelligence rolls out across the planet, it will be anchored in two defining centers of gravity: the Middle Kingdom and Silicon Valley. Others will fall along a continuum within their orbit.

This constellation of power does not fit the geostrategic mold of rivalry between national empires. Rather, it is an asymmetrical array of magnetic forces. On one side is the political logic of the state; on the other is the autonomous logic of technology coursing its way through open societies beyond the authority of governments.

For Beijing, AI is a technology that must be harnessed through centralization and control to ensure the social conformity and enforced political consensus that stands behind stability. The alternative emanating from the West’s innovative core is the opposite: Ideally, at least, it is about the potential of distributed technology to enhance personal liberty.

These fundamentally incompatible visions are set out in stark terms by the relevant players themselves.

“We believe AI should be an extension of individual human wills and, in the spirit of liberty, as broadly and evenly distributed as possible,” OpenAI, which developed GPT-4 and its predecessors, says in a mission statement.

After Alibaba released its latest version of generative AI last week, the Cyberspace Administration of China quickly laid down the law: “Content generated by generative artificial intelligence should embody core socialist values and must not contain any content that subverts state power, advocates the overthrow of the socialist system, incites splitting the country or undermines national unity,” the rules state.

One case in point that reveals the novel nature of this new order: If the regulatory superpower of the European Union has a problem with GPT-4, it calls the tech innovators, not Washington. If it has issues with China using technology to suppress the Uighurs, it calls Beijing.

The Geopolitics Of AI

In his 2018, book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order,” Kai-Fu Lee anticipated the accelerating pace of AI development driven by cross-cultural competition.

“The AI revolution will have two engines — China and the United States — pushing its progress swiftly forward. It is unlike any previous technological revolution that emerged from a singular cultural setting. Having two engines will further accelerate the pace of technology,” Lee observed in an interview with Noema.

But he wholly underestimated how much the then-incipient tensions would mushroom into bristling hostility. His hopeful surmise of what this competition would yield, like so many others at the time, has been overtaken by events.

“An AI arms race would be a grave mistake,” he warned then. “The AI boom is more akin to the spread of electricity in the early Industrial Revolution than nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Those who take the arms-race view are more interested in political posturing than the flourishing of humanity. The value of AI as an omni-use technology rests in its creative, not destructive, potential.”

Alas, in 2023, arms-race posturing now dominates the global narrative because cultural and civilization-bound notions of “the flourishing of humanity” have entirely different definitions in the eye of the beholder.

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In no small part reflecting the qualitative character of AI, the magnetic pull of divergent orientations is taking on the cast of the geostrategic conflict it belies as states increasingly define themselves as carriers and custodians of civilizational values.

What Lee envisioned in terms of market competition is thus becoming true of strategic rivalry.

“Over time, the ‘parallel universes’ already extant in the United States and China will grow to cover the whole world. … If you were to draw a map a decade from now,” he prognosticated six years ago, “you would see China’s tech zone … stretching across Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Africa and to some extent South America. The U.S. zone would entail North America, Australia and Europe.”

If you add Russia, this map nearly coincides with those who stand with Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine and those who don’t.


One is tempted to conclude, as Rudyard Kipling famously did in an earlier age and different context, that “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

If so, the parallel universes of which Lee speaks may evolve into the kind of closed-off spheres of influence not so different from what we saw during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Indeed, a “Digital Curtain” seems to be further descending with every iteration of generative AI, while the extensive integration that entwined nations of the world in the era of post-Cold War globalization is being rolled back and decoupled.

Though the old Cold War terminated in the defeat of the Soviet project, we should not take undue comfort from any present analogy to that 20th-century episode. After all, the so-called end of history in the triumph of the liberal world order also marked the advent of China’s rise as the paragon of non-Western modernity.

Asymmetry And Social Cohesion

It is not a foregone conclusion which system will best thrive, or even prevail, over the long term.

As one of the authors framed the challenge recently in Noema:

In a civilization such as China’s with a millennial past of weighty traditions, ways of life are culturally embedded and largely ascribed as part and parcel of historical continuity. … Absent negative protections, there is scant space from the all-encompassing state for civil society and the individual to go their own way. In the open societies of the West, it is the opposite. Protected by negative freedoms [from state authorities] there is little cultural consensus other than the possibilities of pluralism.

This further layer of asymmetry begs the question of whether “the West can achieve the same level of internal cohesion as China to propel it forward when the only social glue is the disruptive and discontinuous capacity for differentiation.”

Each has qualities that work for it, or, if taken to an extreme, against it. Where AI is aligned with the state, stability may nourish enduring social harmony but can become a Potemkin order that disguises discontent and degenerates into stasis and stagnation. Where AI is aligned with the values of an open society, perpetual innovation that pushes the boundaries of personal freedom ever further can foster creative renewal, but also so loosen the ties that bind a society together that it frays beyond repair.

One may hope against hope like Kai-Fu Lee that generative AI could neutrally spread its benefits to all across the world, like electricity did in the Industrial Revolution. But as a form of intelligence instead of a form of energy bound by the laws of physics, it will take on the distinct civilizational sense from whence it springs.

We must come to terms with the reality that, while generative AI may bring wonders from scientific discovery to economic productivity, it will at the same time amplify, not diminish, clashes over incommensurate values encoded in its algorithms.

This article was original published in Noema Magazine

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