You are on page 1of 2

From THE BIG NINE: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp

Humanity, by Amy Webb. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs, a division of the
Hachette Book Group.

The US government has no grand strategy for AI nor for our longer-term futures. So in place of
coordinated national strategies to build organizational capacity inside the government, to build and
strengthen our international alliances, and to prepare our military for the future of warfare, the United States
has subjugated AI to the revolving door of politics. Instead of funding basic research into AI, the federal
government has effectively outsourced R&D to the commercial sector and the whims of Wall Street. Rather
than treating AI as an opportunity for new job creation and growth, American lawmakers see only
widespread technological unemployment. In turn they blame US tech giants, when they could invite these
companies to participate in the uppermost levels of strategic planning (such as it exists) within the
government. Our AI pioneers have no choice but to constantly compete with each other for a trusted, direct
connection with you, me, our schools, our hospitals, our cities, and our businesses.
In the United States, we suffer from a tragic lack of foresight. We operate with a “nowist” mindset,
planning for the next few years of our lives more than any other timeframe. Nowist thinking champions
short-term technological achievements, but it absolves us from taking responsibility for how technology
might evolve and for the next-order implications and outcomes of our actions. We too easily forget that
what we do in the present could have serious consequences in the future. Is it any wonder, therefore, that
we’ve effectively outsourced the future development of AI to six publicly traded companies whose
achievements are remarkable but whose financial interests do not always align with what’s best for our
individual liberties, our communities, and our democratic ideals?
Meanwhile, in China, AI’s developmental track is tethered to the grand ambitions of government. China
is quickly laying the groundwork to become the world’s unchallenged AI hegemon. In July 2017, the
Chinese government unveiled its Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan to become the
global leader in AI by the year 2030 with a domestic industry worth at least $150 billion,1 which involved
devoting part of its sovereign wealth fund to new labs and startups, as well as new schools launching
specifically to train China’s next generation of AI talent.2 In October of that same year, China’s President
Xi Jinping explained his plans for AI and big data during a detailed speech to thousands of party officials.
AI, he said, would help China transition into one of the most advanced economies in the world. Already,
China’s economy is 30 times larger than it was just three decades ago. Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba may
be publicly traded giants, but typical of all large Chinese companies, they must bend to the will of Beijing.

* * *

The future of AI is currently moving along two developmental tracks that are often at odds with what’s
best for humanity. China’s AI push is part of a coordinated attempt to create a new world order led by
President Xi, while market forces and consumerism are the primary drivers in America. This dichotomy is
a serious blind spot for us all. Resolving it is the crux of our looming AI problem, and it is the purpose of
this book. The Big Nine companies may be after the same noble goals—cracking the code of machine
intelligence to build systems capable of humanlike thought—but the eventual outcome of that work could
irrevocably harm humanity.
Fundamentally, I believe that AI is a positive force, one that will elevate the next generations of
humankind and help us to achieve our most idealistic visions of the future.
But I’m a pragmatist. We all know that even the best-intentioned people can inadvertently cause great
harm. Within technology, and especially when it comes to AI, we must continually remember to plan for
both intended use and unintended misuse. This is especially important today and for the foreseeable future,
as AI intersects with everything: the global economy, the workforce, agriculture, transportation, banking,
environmental monitoring, education, the military, and national security. This is why if AI stays on its
current developmental tracks in the United States and China, the year 2069 could look vastly different than
it does in the year 2019. As the structures and systems that govern society come to rely on AI, we will find
that decisions being made on our behalf make perfect sense to machines—just not to us.
We humans are rapidly losing our awareness just as machines are waking up. We’ve started to pass
some major milestones in the technical and geopolitical development of AI, yet with every new advance-
ment, AI becomes more invisible to us. The ways in which our data is being mined and refined is less
obvious, while our ability to understand how autonomous systems make decisions grows less transparent.
We have, therefore, a chasm in understanding of how AI is impacting daily life in the present, one growing
exponentially as we move years and decades into the future. Shrinking that distance as much as possible
through a critique of the developmental track that AI is currently on is my mission for this book. My goal
is to democratize the conversations about artificial intelligence and make you smarter about what’s ahead—
and to make the real-world future implications of AI tangible and relevant to you personally, before it’s too
Humanity is facing an existential crisis in a very literal sense, because no one is addressing a simple
question that has been fundamental to AI since its very inception: What happens to society when we transfer
power to a system built by a small group of people that is designed to make decisions for everyone? What
happens when those decisions are biased toward market forces or an ambitious political party? The answer
is reflected in the future opportunities we have, the ways in which we are denied access, the social
conventions within our societies, the rules by which our economies operate, and even the way we relate to
other people.