Image of Photo of Prof Dame Wendy Hall

The Geopolitics of AI

The China Forum seminar on Tuesday 20 February 2024 was delivered by Professor Dame Wendy Hall (Regius Professor of Computer Science, Associate Vice President (International Engagement) and Director of the Web Science Institute, University of Southampton).

Professor Dame Wendy Hall argued that AI is a double-edged sword with extraordinary potential to improve economic efficiency and productivity, but with great unpredictability and a capacity to shape our own perceptions of reality. She introduced the frameworks developed to achieve ethical responsibility for the internet and the policies developed for regulating AI. China holds a significant position in both areas, and its position may become even more significant in the future. Dame Wendy noted that the internet was founded on the principle of openness. The decentralised architecture, with a protocol based on open standards, enables computers across the world to talk to each other. Anyone with a computer can use the internet. However, the open structure presents challenges for security. The ethical dilemmas of internet openness have led to four different forms of response: the ‘openness-led’ Silicon Valley approach; the privacy-led ‘Brussels Bourgeois Internet’; the social value-led ‘Beijing Paternal Internet’; and the market forces-led ‘Washington DC Commercial Internet’. Dame Wendy argued that China’s approach has enabled it to pioneer technologies in ways that the West is unable to do.

Sixty per cent of the world population is now connected to the internet. In 2022 Ukraine requested ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to shut Russia off from use of top-level domains, which would deny it access to the internet. ICANN rejected the request on the grounds that it should ‘maintain neutrality and act in support of the global internet’. Dame Wendy argued that it is necessary to have a benign and neutral internet. International cooperation for AI governance is essential, as is the case with climate change, pandemics and terrorism. However, the structure for global governance of the internet is unresolved and internet regulation involves divergent national interests. In 2022 the release of ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, stimulated widespread global discussion about the possible negative consequences of AI and the need to regulate it in the common interest. In fact, different countries and regions have adopted different approaches towards AI regulation. The US approach involves voluntary regulation of AI in accordance with a code of conduct agreed to by the major AI players. The UK adopts a ‘pro-innovation’ approach. China used the 2023 BRI Forum to launch its proposed framework for AI regulation, under which leading Chinese tech companies must receive government approval for their generative AI products. The UN has established a high level advisory body on AI to help decide how to govern AI globally, but this is the only one of the several global partnerships in AI that includes China.

Issues discussed in the Q&A included: how to break up the USA’s technology monopolies, which are driven by profit rather than global interest; whether the Chinese government has regulated AI and broken up technology monopolies more effectively than the West has done; the extent to which AI presents an existential threat to the human species; the possible negative impact upon innovation that might arise from splitting up technology companies; the consequences for global AI regulation of the EU’s weakness in ‘tech’ companies compared with those in China and the US; the balance of costs and benefits in the emergence of AI; OpenAI’s shortcomings as a business model; the feasibility of data nationalism on the one hand and global governance of data on the other; the contrasting approach towards digital ID in China and India; the contrast between the approach towards AI regulation in the UK and the EU; the difficulties posed to AI regulation by the vested interests of giant tech companies.

Dame Wendy Hall, DBE, FRS, FREng is Regius Professor of Computer Science, Associate Vice President (International Engagement) and is Director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton. She became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in the 2009 UK New Year's Honours list and is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the ACM. Dame Wendy was co-Chair of the UK government’s AI Review, which was published in October 2017 and a member of the AI Council. She is currently the co-Chair of the ACM Publications Board and Editor-in-Chief of Royal Society Open Science. She is an advisor to the UK government and many other governments and companies around the world and in 2023 was appointed to the United Nations high-level advisory body on artificial intelligence. Her latest book, Four Internets, co-written with Kieron O’Hara, was published by OUP in 2021.