'Atom bomb was biggest fear, now there's fear over AI'

'Atom bomb was biggest fear, now there's fear over AI'

Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei. (AFP photo)

Tech giant Huawei's founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei on Tuesday said atom bombs were the biggest fear once, but now there is fear over artificial intelligence, but people must realise that the development of technology is for good.

Speaking at a session on 'A Future Shaped by a Technology Arms Race' here at the WEF Annual Meeting, Zhengfei said AI is not as damaging as atom bombs.

Speaking during the same session, historian Yuval Noah Harari, however, said the danger is not so obvious in AI as compared to atom bombs and there are benefits for some actors.

"You can win the race and dominate the world. It's a conversation in Beijing and San Francisco - in Washington they don't really understand what's happening," he said.

Harari said there is state surveillance in China, and surveillance capitalism in the US, with no serious third player in the arms race.

"On the most shallow level, it could be a repeat of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution, when the leaders had the chance to dominate the world economically and politically... I understand the current arms race as an imperial arms race... You don't need to send the soldiers in if you have all the data on a country," Harari said.

"To hack human beings, you need a lot of biological knowledge, enough computer power, enough data about me. You can hack my body, my brain, my life, you can reach a point where you know me better than I know myself," he said.

Zhengfei said, "technology is for good. Development of technology is for good, not for bad."

Over the last thousands of years, technological advancement was very much in synch with people's evolution and people's fears over innovations like steamships and the mechanical age were gradually overcome, said.

"I believe in the face of new technologies humanity will be able to use them to benefit us. Most people aspire a good life, not a miserable life," the Huawei CEO said.

"Atom bombs were the biggest fear when he was a boy. Today, we're seeing fear over AI but it's not as damaging as atom bombs," he said.

"At Huawei, our research is so-called "weak AI", where there are clear boundaries in terms of where AI can be applied," he said.

On the US fears of China, Zhengfei said, "if you look at the education system in China, it's designed for the industrial age, so AI can't grow rapidly in China.... The US is over-concerned. The US has got used to being the world number one."

"Huawei used to be an admirer of the US, we learned a lot from them. We hired dozens of American consulting firms to learn how to manage our business. The US should feel proud of it, they have the US management system exported and implemented. They should not be overly concerned about Huawei and our position in the world."

He said this year the US might further escalate their campaign against Huawei but he feels the impact will not be too significant.

Because Huawei did not have the reassurance of American support they had to put in Plan B and that is why they have withstood the US position against the company, he added.

Harari said, "autonomous weapons are a real arms race and a very dangerous development, but everyone is saying the same thing, I don't want to be left behind."

"The point is when you gather enough data on people, you get to know people better than they know yourself. Are we at the point where companies or governments can hack millions of people, that means they know my medical history, personal weaknesses?" 

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