5 min read

Atlantic Council CEO, Frederick Kempe spoke in the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. He talked about the Cold war between the US and China and why the countries need to co-operate and not compete in the tech arms race, in his presentation Future Frontiers of Technology Control.

He began his presentation by posing a question set forth by Former US Foreign National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, “Can the incumbent US and insurgent China become strategic collaborators and strategic competitors in this tech space at the same time?

Read also: The New AI Cold War Between China and the USA

Kempe’s three framing arguments

Geopolitical Competition

This fusion of tech breakthroughs blurring lines of the physical, digital, and biological space is reaching an inflection point that makes it already clear that they will usher in a revolution that will determine the shape of the global economy. It will also determine which nations and political constructs may assume the commanding heights of global politics in the coming decade.


Technological superiority

Over the course of history, societies that dominated economic innovation and progress have dominated in international relations — from military superiority to societal progress and prosperity. On balance, technological progress has contributed to higher standards of living in most parts of the world; however, the disproportionate benefit goes to first movers.

Commanding Heights

The technological arms race for supremacy in the fourth industrial revolution has essentially become a two-horse contest between the United States and China. We are in the early stages of this race, but how it unfolds and is conducted will do much to shape global human relations. The shift in 2018 in US-China relations from a period of strategic engagement to greater strategic competition has also significantly accelerated the Tech arms race.

China vs the US: Why China has the edge?

It was Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation who said that “The one who becomes the leader in Artificial Intelligence, will rule the world.”

In 2017, DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated a Chinese master in Go, a traditional Chinese game. Following this defeat, China launched an ambitious roadmap, called the next generation AI plan. The goal was to become the Global leader in AI by 2030 in theory, technology, and application.

China's growth

On current trajectories, in the four primary areas of AI over the next 5 years, China will emerge the winner of this new technology race.

China trajectory

Kempe also quotes, author of the book, AI superpowers, Kai-fu Lee who argues that harnessing of the power of AI today- the electricity of the 21st century- requires abundant data, hungry entrepreneurs, AI scientists, and an AI friendly policy. He believes that China has the edge in all of these. The current AI has translated from out of the box research, where the US has expertise in, to actual implementation, where China has the edge.

Per, Kai-fu Lee China already has the edge in entrepreneurship, data, and government support, and is rapidly catching up to the U.S. in expertise.

The world has translated from the age of world-leading expertise (US department) to the age of data, where China wins hands down. Economists call China the Saudi Arabia of Data and with that as the fuel for AI, it has an enormous advantage. The Chinese government without privacy restrictions can gain and use data in a manner that is out of reach of any democracy.

Kemper concludes that the nature of this technological arms contest may favor insurgent China rather than the incumbent US.

What are the societal implications of this tech cold war

He also touched upon the societal implications of AI and the cold war between the US and China. A number of jobs will be lost by 2030. Quoting from Kai-fu Lee’s book, Kempe says that Job displacement caused by artificial intelligence and advanced robotics could possibly displace up to 54 million US workers which comprise 30% of the US labor force. It could also displace up to 100 million Chinese workers which are 12% of the Chinese labor force.

What is the way forward with these huge societal implications of a bi-lateral race underway?

Kempe sees three possibilities.

A sloppy Status Quo

A status quo where China and the US will continue to cooperate but increasingly view each other with suspicion. They will manage their rising differences and distrust imperfectly, never bridging them entirely, but also not burning bridges, either between researchers, cooperations, or others.

Techno Cold War

China and the US turn the global tech contest into more of a zero-sum battle for global domination. They organize themselves in a manner that separates their tech sectors from each other and ultimately divides up the world.

Collaborative Future – the one we hope for

Nicholas Thompson and Ian Bremmer argued in a wired interview that despite the two countries’ societal difference, the US should wrap China in a tech embrace. The two countries should work together to establish international standards to ensure that the algorithms governing people’s lives and livelihoods are transparent and accountable. They should recognize that while the geopolitics of technological change is significant, even more important will be the challenges AI poses to all societies across the world in terms of job automation and the social disruptions that may come with it.

It may sound utopian to expect US and China to cooperate in this manner, but this is what we should hope for. To do otherwise would be self-defeating and at the cost of others in the global community which needs our best thinking to navigate the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.

Kempe concludes his presentation with a quote by Henry Kissinger, Former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, “We’re in a position in which the peace and prosperity of the world depend on whether China and the US can find a method to work together, not always in agreement, but to handle our disagreements…This is the key problem of our time.

Note: All images in this article are taken from Frederick Kempe’s presentation.

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