When I’m sat at my computer, on the shelf behind me, sometimes visible on my Zoom calls is a 50-year-old stuffed toy panda. The toy was the first gift I received and it’s a legacy of Richard Nixon’s panda diplomacy with China. Détente with China was symbolised with a gift of two giant pandas, they arrived in Washington in the same month that I was born in New Jersey.
Forty five years later, at a Parisian trilateral “International Cooperation on artificial intelligence” summit involving China, US and France, I watched as a US state department official made a calculated snub to their Chinese counterpart, declaring that the US would not co-operate with China on AI while it remained authoritarian and unpicking the fruits of a nearly half-century of diplomacy.
My son was given a brown stuffed bear when he was born, and by the time he was four years old we lived in a Victorian house in Sheffield, one big enough to easily accommodate my Italian in-laws on their visits to see him. The house had a large garage that had served as a billiard room, and behind that was a pile of garbage dumped by previous occupants as part of an unfinished remodelling. It contained glass, nails, lead painted boards and goodness knows what else.
On one of my in-laws’ visits, when my son headed towards the back of the garage my father-in-law, called out to him in Italian.
"Don't go there there's a boogeyman behind the garage."
This put me in a difficult position, I also didn't want my son to go behind the garage, but I’d prefer him to have understood the real dangers rather than giving him boogeyman nightmares.
This story reminds me of the UK AI Summit and a new era of what I’ve started thinking of as boogeyman diplomacy. The way the summit is focussing on long term risks of “frontier models” draws to mind popular notions of Terminator robots as portrayed by Schwarzenegger. This is what I think of as the AI boogeyman.
Just like behind my garage, there are many dangers to AI, and some of those dangers are unknown. In the rubbish there could have been rats and asbestos. Similarly with today’s information technologies we already face challenges around power asymmetries, where a few companies are controlling access to information. Competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are addressing these. We also face challenges around automated decision making: the European GDPR is an attempt to regulate how and when algorithmic decision making can be used. The AI boogeyman is frightening extreme conflation of these two challenges, just as an asbestos breathing rat would be a very disturbing conflation of the challenges behind my garage.
But just as the right approach to dealing with an asbestos breathing rat would be to deal with the rats and the asbestos separately, so the AI boogeyman can be dealt with by dealing with both power asymmetries and automated decision making. In both these areas many of us have already been supporting governments in developing new regulation to address these risks. But by combining them, boogeyman diplomacy runs the serious risk of highlighting the problems in a way that distracts us from the real dangers we face.
However, like Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon’s panda diplomacy, boogeyman diplomacy does promise a potential benefit. It is far easier to agree on an exchange of pandas than it is to bridge cultural and political divides between two great nations. Similarly, it will be far easier for China and the United States to agree on measures for imagined risks than it will be for them to agree on the significant challenges their different societies are facing. Ever since the calculated snub in that trilateral summit in Paris the US and China have not talked on these important issues.
As Connected by Data’s open letter from yesterday shows, the UK Prime Minister has sacrificed a great deal of credibility with technical experts, civil society, and citizens across the world with his cry of AI boogeyman. But if the United States and China can be brought back around the table to begin talking again, it may be that the sacrifice is worth it.
Happy Halloween from the Boogeyman.