Science & Technology
From GPT to AGI: Takeoff or Landing?
Less than six months have passed since the last review on the topic in question, but the rapid developments in Large Language Models (LLM) and Multimodal Large Language Models (MLLM) require fresh updates. The outstanding representatives of the former are ChatGPT and GPT-4, demonstrating the triumph of artificial conversational intelligence to the public, while the leader among the latter is Midjourney that may take the bread away from a huge number of mid-tier graphic designers.
Advances and “breakthroughs” in textual and multimodal models based on deep and generative neural networks and transformers, in connection with the task and possibility of creating Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), as well as the social and ethical aspects of their development and application, are discussed in the Russian-language AGI developer community on a regular basis. At the 2023 seminars, in particular, the technical capabilities of ChatGPT / GPT-4 technologies, juxtaposition of their level with AGI, as well as the social effects of their application in modern society were discussed. In this review, we outline the main achievements and opportunities, as well as threats and potential development outlook.
Breakthroughs and opportunities
Indeed, the latest versions of ChatGPT / GPT-4 from OpenAI allow us to talk about certain technological “breakthroughs.”
Finally, the Turing Test has been passed in all earnestness. The fact of the matter is that formally this test was passed by the computer program named Eugene Goostman chatbot, back in 2014 or nine years ago. But then the developers of that winning software disclosed its structure, and it came out that its essence is just a large and rather complicated “decision tree” with programmed dialog logic, and its creation and adjustment took the developers several dozens of man-years. This event provoked strong criticism from the academia which challenged the value of the Turing Test as a measure of artificial intelligence, if it can be passed by a manually created program, but not by a self-learning intelligent algorithm. Today, the quality of ChatGPT dialogs allowed reaching an audience of 100 million users in just six months, most of them finding the bot’s answers quite “human.” Inconsistencies and mistakes in the statements can be found, but it takes some effort, and in many cases, they also look quite “human” (e.g., outright nonsense about stirring coffee with a cigarette or tales in response to a question about the role of tank units in the army of Alexander the Great can be perceived as humor). Moreover, a recent IQ-test of the ChatGPT bot in its textual version showed that its “intelligence” in 155 Verbal IQ was not only significantly higher than average, but was above the IQ of 99.9% of those who were recruited in the test group of 2,450.
From a practical point of view, ChatGPT technology, for the first time in the half-century history of research in Natural Language Processing (NLP), made it possible to solve the task of summarizing texts with a quality acceptable for practical use. One of the new services based on this technology is ChatPDF, a service for generating short “extracts” from scientific articles and documents in different languages.
Moreover, the conversational capabilities of ChatGPT bot allow not only detailed answers to any questions (including even those for which an adequate question is impossible) and summarizing the articles, but also recommendations for programming and solutions to various technical problems in the case when the original data and examples of solutions could be in the training dataset.
For its part, MLLM Midjorney, which learned since last year to draw highly realistic portraits of any imaginary characters like Harry Potter as Ilya Muromets or Sherlock Holmes as Cat Matroskin, has just published a fresh version where all humanoid characters are guaranteed to always have 5 fingers on their hands (previous versions often drew six-fingered characters due to model flaws).
Today, LLM and MLLM-based solutions may well improve the productivity of those who work with text, graphics, and uncomplicated program code—in cases where one does not need a hundred percent guarantee of adequacy and quality, or the user acts as a critic, picking up “hints” or “prompts” and making sure the output is adequate. In fact, the principle of “trust, but verify” is also useful in checking the work of live subordinates and assistants, so such systems may well begin to be considered as junior secretaries and mates.
Risks and threats
Not so long ago it was believed that robots would rid humanity of dirty and hard work, and that humans would be free to engage in creativity and art. Recent advances described above suddenly implicate that “robots” are more likely to be able to efficiently write texts, draw pictures, and perhaps even compose music as well as uncomplicated (for now) computer programs themselves, leaving humans with tasks which are inconvenient for MLLM/LLM applications, such as tire swapping and stairwell cleaning. At this stage, while leaving simple robots to perform routine operations on the assembly line, sophisticated neural network models are more likely to get creative from now on, leaving the role of handymen to humans.
If we look at the emergence of the Internet, no one could have imagined that the network of scientific laboratory computers would grow not only into a worldwide network of knowledge and news exchange, but also into a worldwide network of cybercrime, where everyone could become a victim of computer viruses, social engineering, personal and financial data theft and even the personal identity stealing. Cyber criminals now laying their hands on tools for mass generation of fake videos, audios and texts could virtually create an unprecedented wave of cybercrime, with victims receiving voice messages and video calls from fake relatives or fictitious characters, engaging in trusted dialogues with them and eventually engaging in financial transactions for the benefit of fraudsters.
The use of such technologies at the state level or for political and marketing purposes can lead to a qualitatively new level of manipulating the public consciousness, based on massive generation and delivery of highly realistic text, audio and video content with a preset orientation. Neuro marketing will be automated and put on an assembly line. Superiority in hybrid and information warfare may lie with whoever is able and willing to turn these technologies into weapons.
Just as the technological revolution has limited man’s need for physical activity, the information revolution has deprived people of the need for memory. A further revolution in artificial intelligence will rob humans of their ability to think. Operators of industrial facilities with ACS systems in place are losing the skills to control the systems themselves and are unable to cope with them in abnormal or emergency situations. In order not to degrade, people will have to specifically force themselves to practice in mental activity, as they force themselves to jog in the morning or go to the gym after work—we have dealt with this matter in a separate article.
Technologies like ChatGPT can significantly lower the quality of education, since the capabilities of modern LLMs to paraphrase texts make anti-plagiarism systems useless and their quality of text generation on any topic available to schoolchildren and students will make it impossible to give homework assignments like writing essays and term papers, and in the near future any homework assignment, since any assignment can be “copied” from the “big brother.”
The speed at which events have unfolded over the past six months, the seriousness of the above risks, and the anticipation of new, unknown risks in the future lead a number of prominent figures in science and business to advocating a ban on the use of systems “smarter than GPT-4” for at least half a year, in order to analyze the possible consequences of technology development and to prepare the necessary regulatory measures.
On the Russian-language AGI developer community channel, a vote was held on the issue of banning or restricting research in AI using LLMs/MLLMs of the GPT-4 level and higher. As the poll showed, it was cyberthreats and the danger of using AI for military purposes that was identified as the main reason for a possible ban on the development of “stronger” AI. At the same time, many more people expressed the view that restrictions on AI were unnecessary, and even argued that bans would no longer help, as the “race for AI” between corporations and nations is unstoppable.
There is a heated debate in the academia about the extent to which the breakthroughs described above are bringing human civilization closer to the creation of AGI. As can be seen from the voting results, a quarter of the participants believe that LLM/MLLM in its current form is a blind alley. Excessive energy consumption, lack of symbolic or logical reasoning, inability to set goals and get adapted to new learning environments beyond the framework of the learning sample, as well as the need to address other problems identified in our previous article are cited as a strong case for this position. A fundamental argument against considering the GPT-4 even as an AGI prototype is its initial design as a “perfect approximator,” capable of nothing more than fitting its model to a given training corpus, trying to predict as accurately as possible the next word or letter in text or adjacent pixel in an image.
On the other hand, more than a third of those surveyed believe that this technology is an integral part of the future of AGI, though not the only one, and that many ingredients are still missing. As could be heard at one of the recent seminars, the key “missing” ingredient is seen as the ability to set goals. Indeed, existing chatbots work in a “reactive” mode, simply responding to user requests, even if that response is generated within the context of previous communications, with the user in mind. For a full-fledged proactive behavior of such systems, with a focus on achieving their own goals and independent goal-setting capabilities, more complex solutions are obviously required. Higher-level cognitive architectures, including various neural network models responsible for both answering questions and creating contexts for these answers, so that the answers could guide a trajectory of user’s movement in a direction, necessary and beneficial for the system itself, taking into account its own goals set by the system itself, could be one of those solutions. Among other things, hybrid cognitive architectures, combining LLM/MLLM and logical inference within neuro-symbolic integration, as proposed in one of the recent papers at last year’s BICA-2022 conference, can be created. Only one question remains: given the risks and threats outlined above, how much goal-setting can be delegated to future AI systems and what frameworks can and should be set for this purpose.
Meanwhile, almost 20% of all respondents believe that either the GPT-4 has already reached the AGI level, or the necessary improvements like those listed above are not critical. Given the above-mentioned results in terms of AGI’s textual communication capabilities, the task of catching up with most humans and overtaking them in terms of cognitive capacity now seems much more realistic than it was just a year ago. At the same time, even “not the strongest AI” in “capable hands” with computing and communication capacity for its application already offers huge competitive advantages—both in peaceful marketing and in information wars.
If this AI is used as an “intelligent assistant”, as we earlier mentioned, important and currently insurmountable problems of reliability, verifiability and interpretability figure large. When you use a regular text search on Google, the lack of search results more or less adequately indicates the lack of the desired information and forces you to work out a solution on your own. If you get a response from ChatGPT, you do not know whether it is objective information, or whether it is a fantasy on a level playing field (like the tanks of Alexander the Great), or maybe it is a politically biased interpretation of events in a context determined by a training sample—random or purposeful. Thus, for serious practical application beyond the entertainment realm, the use of this technology requires an even greater level of critical thinking than was required when a conventional search is used. In other words, for a thoughtful expert, ChatGPT and similar systems are an effective assistant; yet for a clueless outsider this is a sure way of getting into a very unpleasant situation and real trouble by taking any answers on board. Obviously, the development of technology in this direction, elaboration on the ways of implementing “critical thinking” at the level of the system’s cognitive architecture will be gathering momentum.
The economics of dialog systems like ChatGPT also leaves much to be desired for now, as compared to traditional Internet searches. Conventional keyword searching is based on extracting a set of potentially relevant links and document fragments based on indexing the entire corpus of source documents and pages on the Internet by individual words, for the user to independently comprehend the search results. Starting in 2015, this search has also been enriched in Google with semantic search based on the knowledge graph—that is, the semantic index. In turn, the LLM model, trained to the same volume of documents and pages, is itself an associative index, requiring much more computing resources to store and process. And the process of generating a response to a query also involves the context of the user’s session. With that in mind, the multi-headed attention mechanism is conducive to responses that are more specific to the user’s interests. All of the above requires significant computational outlay and so the final cost of replacing the usual search with a chatbot turns out 10 times higher.
In connection with the previous point, it should be noted that the business model of the classic “cheaper” Internet search is based on contextual advertising, presented in the form of clearly marked and obvious (“look out, advertising!”) links. And in case of responding to a request in the form of a chatbot message, the presence of advertising links in the search output is impossible due to the absence of the search output per se. Consequently, chatbot monetization may be possible only in the event of hidden advertising embedded in the text of the bot’s response, which leads to threats of manipulation and can be legally regulated. Perhaps the development of question-and-answer chatbots in the future can only be done via business models like subscriptions, or implicit divestment and resale of the information collected from users, which is also already a point of concern to lawmakers so that ChatGPT was recently banned in Italy.
While the latest calls to ban or stop the development of AI concern LLM/MLLM-based systems that operate exclusively in the virtual digital space and pose no obvious threat outside of it, in the real physical world much more serious problems are possible. In the previous overview we mentioned the actual inability of the global academia to stop the development of autonomous lethal weapon systems. The ubiquitous spread of a wide variety of UAVs and loitering munition in today’s theater of war for a wide range of tactical missions and objectives is becoming a key factor of superiority. Unfortunately, the continuation of armed conflicts around the world will undoubtedly boost technology development in this direction.
The fundamental possibility of building an AI system with cognitive abilities close, in certain aspects, to human ones has already been demonstrated. However, this requires computing resources that are significantly larger than those which can be possessed by autonomous physical devices, whether we are talking about UAVs or other terrestrial and land-based drones. Clearly, further work to miniaturize and reduce the power consumption of AI technologies will enable future creation of intelligent autonomous devices that make multimodal MLLM-type behaviors possible for robots operating in the physical world without the need for access to future GPT-5-type server clusters. And this could also enable the creation of autonomous, compact, intelligent weapons delivery and application tools that might elevate existing threats to the next level.
And even today, while LLM/MLLM intelligence is limited to the capacity of server clusters and those information networks that are connected to those clusters, the strategic superiority of those geopolitical entities, whose jurisdiction spreads to the institutions and companies that own such clusters, are obvious. These countries have a significant competitive edge and can ensure their technological sovereignty in the information space and other realms much better than those that cannot guarantee the development of relevant technologies in their jurisdiction.
From our partner RIAC
Science & Technology
How the humble neutron can help solve some of the universe’s deepest mysteries
Scientists are unleashing the power of neutrons to improve understanding of everyday materials and tackle fundamental questions in physics.
By MICHAEL ALLEN
Apart from flashbacks that the hit Netflix series Breaking Bad may have conjured up, most of us have likely happily forgotten what we learned in chemistry classes back in school.
So here’s a quick brush-up: chemistry looks at the building blocks of our physical world, such as atoms, and the changes they undergo. An atom consists of a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons.
Free the neutrons
Now for something high school chemistry might not have taught us: the humble neutron, found in the nucleus of every atom but hydrogen, can – if manipulated in just the right way – shed light on everything from the climate crisis and energy, to health and quantum computing.
One such way is a rather spectacular process known as spallation, high-energy particles destabilise an atom’s nucleus, which in turn releases some of the neutrons found there.
When harnessed, these newly freed neutrons can be used like X-rays to map the inner structure of materials.
Currently under construction in Lund, Sweden, the European Spallation Source (ESS) is expected to come online in 2027. Once it achieves its full specifications, its unprecedented flux and spectral range is set to make it the most powerful and versatile neutron source for science in the world.
The purpose of the facility, said Jimmy Binderup Andersen, head of innovation and industry at the ESS, ‘is to create neutrons, a neutron beam, to be used for scientific purposes.’
Once the facility is up and running, scientists from across Europe and the rest of the world will be able to use its 15 different beamlines to conduct fundamental research.
According to Andersen, a neutron beam ‘is not the same as an X-ray, but it is complementary and uses some of the same physical laws.’
Like X-rays, neutrons can be used to probe materials and biological systems. But they interact with materials in different ways to the photons in high-energy X-ray beams, and therefore provide different types of information about their targets.
For example, neutron beams can say something about the interior dynamics of lithium-ion batteries, reveal obscured details from ancient artefacts or clarify the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. They can also be used to explore fundamental physics. It almost seems like a case of ‘what can’t they do?’
As part of the EU-funded BrightnESS-2 project partly coordinated by Andersen, technologies developed for the ESS were shared with industry in Europe, to benefit society at large. For instance, some of the power systems developed for the ESS beamlines could be useful for renewable energy technologies, like wind turbines.
Recently, the ESS was contacted by a European semiconductor manufacturer interested in the radiation fields the neutron source can generate. The world we live in is constantly bombarded with neutrons, produced when high-energy particles from outer space, such as cosmic rays from the sun, collide with Earth’s atmosphere. Over time, this exposure can damage electrical components.
The ESS can mimic this neutron bombardment, but on a much faster time scale, enabling it to be used to test the durability of critical electrical components, such as those used in airplanes, wind turbines and spacecraft.
Now ESS is teaming up with other research institutes and companies to find a possible future use of a facility like ESS to address such specific industry needs.
Although the ESS is still being built, scientists are already working on an upgrade to the facility.
When the ESS first opens it will have one moderator, but the EU-funded HighNESS project is developing a second moderator system. The moderators will slow down the neutrons generated during the spallation process, to an energy level that the scientific instruments can use.
‘The neutron energy really matters in a neutron facility, because depending on the neutron energy, you can do different kinds of physics,’ said Valentina Santoro, coordinator of the HighNESS project.
While the first moderator will provide high-brightness, which is a very focused beam of neutrons, the source being developed by the HighNESS project will deliver a high intensity, in other words, a large number of neutrons.
The two moderators will allow scientists to explore different aspects of the dynamics and structure of materials such as polymers, biomolecules, liquid metals and batteries.
A fundamental mystery
The second moderator will also enable explorations of fundamental physics to try and see a neutron become an antineutron for the first time.
‘This is very interesting, because you observe a phenomenon where matter becomes antimatter,’ said Santoro, who is a particle physicist based at the ESS. ‘If you observe something like that you can understand one of the biggest unsolved mysteries: Why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.’
This experiment can only be done at ESS, Santoro said, because it requires a huge number of neutrons and the ESS will have the highest number in the world.
‘You just need one neutron that becomes an antineutron, and that is it, you’ve found this process where matter becomes antimatter,’ Santoro said.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Science & Technology
The Power of Empathy: Building Connections in the Digital World
In our increasingly interconnected digital world, where communication often takes place through screens and devices, fostering genuine connections can sometimes feel challenging. However, amidst this vast virtual landscape, empathy stands out as a powerful force that transcends physical barriers and brings people closer together. By cultivating empathy, we can bridge the emotional gaps that technology creates, leading to deeper understanding, meaningful relationships, and a more compassionate online community.
Empathy enables us to empathize with individuals from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. In the digital realm, where physical distance separates us, empathy becomes an essential tool for bridging the gaps that exist between people. By actively seeking to understand others’ perspectives, we can transcend geographical boundaries and forge connections that might otherwise seem improbable. Empathy helps break down stereotypes, dispel prejudices, and promote inclusivity, fostering a sense of unity in the digital world.In the absence of face-to-face interaction, it’s easy for misunderstandings and misinterpretations to arise. Empathy helps mitigate these issues by encouraging active listening and validation. When we approach online conversations with empathy, we strive to understand not just the words being said, but also the emotions, intentions, and underlying context behind them. By acknowledging and validating others’ feelings, we create a safe and supportive space where open dialogue can flourish, promoting a culture of respect and understanding in the digital sphere.The digital world offers platforms for people to express their thoughts, share their experiences, and seek support. Empathy plays a crucial role in providing emotional support to those in need. By demonstrating compassion and empathy in our online interactions, we can make a significant difference in someone’s well-being. A kind word, a virtual hug, or a heartfelt comment can uplift spirits, validate emotions, and remind individuals that they are not alone. Through empathy, we create a network of support that transcends physical barriers, promoting mental health and resilience in the digital realm.Conflict is inevitable, even in the virtual space. However, empathy acts as a powerful tool for conflict resolution and trust-building. By empathizing with others’ perspectives, we can de-escalate tense situations, promote understanding, and find common ground. Empathy allows us to navigate disagreements with grace, respect, and consideration, leading to more constructive discussions and the potential for mutual growth. By fostering empathy-driven conflict resolution, we strengthen the bonds of trust and create a harmonious online environment.Empathy has the power to inspire positivity and drive change. In a digital world often plagued by negativity, hate speech, and online harassment, empathy becomes a catalyst for transformation. By consciously choosing to respond with empathy and compassion, we can counteract the negativity and create a ripple effect of kindness. Empathy encourages us to be more mindful of our words and actions, promoting empathy-driven initiatives, and supporting causes that uplift and empower others. Through collective efforts, empathy can drive significant change in the digital world, fostering a more empathetic and inclusive online community.
An operational and cultural shift that reveals the true heart and values of a firm is the adoption of an empathic and human-centered approach to leadership. Putting an emphasis on an employee’s skills, qualities, and characteristics that make them uniquely human demonstrates that they are working for brands that actually reflect what they regard as significant and that respect the contributions they contribute to meeting the objectives of the organisation and the individual. Such a move might position your brand as the employer of choice and make a significant difference to your staff retention statistics. Given that many employees are still evaluating their long-term career plans and looking for opportunities that line with their fundamental values, this could position your brand as the employer of cchoice Managers and business leaders must keep in mind that, above all else, your business is your people as we move forward into 2023 with the possibility of a recession and numerous problems ahead. Leaders would be foolish to overlook their team’s demands and expectations while creating your organization’s culture and long-term strategies since they are the ones who will secure your success in the months and years to come, regardless of what you sell or deliver. It takes time to create an empathic workplace culture, but even while it might not be the quick cure you were hoping for, it could mean the difference between failure and success for your business.
Many businesses have used empathy effectively in their lead generation campaigns, and these businesses’ achievements are proof of the effectiveness of this strategy. Here are a few instances of businesses that use empathy in their lead generating campaigns. Zendesk: Zendesk is a customer service software company that uses empathy in their lead generation efforts by actively listening to potential customers and tailoring their approach to meet their specific needs. By using empathy to build trust and establish a connection with potential leads, Zendesk has been able to generate a large number of high-quality leads.Using personalised content that speaks directly to the wants and worries of potential leads, marketing and sales software business Hubspot leverages empathy in their lead generation efforts. Hubspot has produced a lot of high-quality leads by leveraging empathy to establish a human connection with potential leads.In order to generate leads, Salesforce, a provider of customer relationship management software, understands the wants and motives of potential customers and then adjusts its strategy accordingly. Salesforce has been successful in producing a significant number of high-quality leads by leveraging empathy to foster trust and establish a connection with potential leads.
In a digital world where technology can sometimes hinder genuine human connections, empathy serves as a powerful antidote. By embracing empathy, actively listening, validating others’ experiences, and supporting one another emotionally, we can build bridges that connect us on a deeper level. Empathy fosters understanding, resolves conflicts, and promotes positive change, transforming the digital sphere into a more compassionate and inclusive space. Let us harness the power of empathy to forge meaningful connections and make a difference in the lives of others in our interconnected digital world.
Science & Technology
U.S, China and Russia: Intelligence, Cybersecurity and new developing technologies
Interview with Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori
China has been investing heavily in technological innovation, particularly in areas such as artificial intelligence and 5G. How do you see China’s technology industry evolving in the coming years, and what implications could this have for the rest of the world?
In recent years China has delved into the importance and development prospects of artificial intelligence (AI) in many important fields. Stepping up the development of a new generation of AI is an important strategic starting point to stay ahead in the global technology competition.
The current gap between AI development and the advanced international level is not very wide, but the quality of companies must be “matched” by their number. Efforts are therefore being made to expand application scenarios, by strengthening data and algorithm security.
The concept of third-generation AI is already advancing and there are hopes that the security problem will be solved through technical means other than policies and regulations, i.e. mere talk.
AI is a driving force for the new stages of technological revolution and industrial transformation. Accelerating the development of a new generation of AI is a strategic issue for China to seize new opportunities for organising industrial transformation.
It is commonly argued that AI has gone through two generations so far. AI1 is knowledge-based, also known as “symbolism”, whereas AI2 is based on data, e.g. big data, and their “deep learning”.
AI started to be developed in the 1950s with the famous Test by Alan Turing (1912-1954), and the first studies on it started in China in 1978. In AI1, however, progress was relatively small. Real progress has been made mainly over the last 20 years – hence IA2.
AI is known for the traditional IT industry, typically the Internet companies. It has accumulated a large number of users in the development process, thus establishing corresponding patterns or profiles based on these acquisitions, i.e. the so-called “users’ taste knowledge graph” of users. Taking the delivery of certain products as an example, tens or even hundreds of millions of data consisting of user and merchant location information, as well as information about potential buyers, are incorporated into a database and then matched and optimised by means of AI algorithms. This obviously enhances trade efficacy and the speed of delivery.
By updating and upgrading traditional industries in this way, great benefits have been achieved. In this respect, China is leading the way: facial recognition, smart speakers, intelligent customer service, etc. In recent years, not only has an increasing number of companies started to apply AI, but AI itself has also become one of the professional directions that most worries candidates in university entrance exams.
According to statistics, there are 40 AI companies in the world with a turnover of more than $1 billion, 20 of them in the USA and 15 in China.
The core AI sector should be independent of the IT industry, but open up more to transport, medicine, the urban substrate, and industries directed autonomously by AI technology. These sectors are already being developed in China.
China accounts for more than a third of the world’s start-ups in the AI field. While the quantity is high, the quality still needs to be improved, although there are signs that it will evolve geometrically.
The AI implications in today’s world are therefore knowledge and technological advantages that determine – to a large extent – the differences in the management of international politics. The increase in a country’s intellectual power directly defines an increase in its economic power, thus changing its positioning in the international competition for dominance.
The politics of power – first in the agricultural era and later in the industrial era – was characterised by military and then economic hegemony, while the politics of power in the information era gradually reveals the characteristics of knowledge-based hegemony at the scientific level, which will indeed be essentially based on artificial intelligence.
2. Some people have accused China of engaging in unfair trade practices, such as dumping goods on foreign markets or stealing intellectual property. What is your opinion on these allegations, and do you believe China should be held accountable for these actions?
In fact, many Western media report that China is circumventing or breaking trade rules. Its economic manipulations have cost millions of US jobs, hurting workers and companies there but also around the world. Media also report that the United States will reject market-distorting policies and practices, such as subsidies and barriers to market access, which the Chinese government has used for years to gain a competitive advantage.
In fact, China has faithfully fulfilled the commitments made when it joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO). China supports, builds and contributes to the multilateral trading system. Economic and trade relations between China and the United States are mutually beneficial. Nevertheless, the economic war between the People’s Republic of China and the United States in the trade and investment areas has been the main cause of trade frictions between the two countries, which harm others without benefiting themselves either.
Over the last twenty years since joining the WTO, China has seriously fulfilled the commitments made upon accession. It has extended the pre-determined national treatment management system to the national level. It has continued to expand market access. It has reduced the overall tariff level from 15.3 to 7.4 per cent, and opened up nearly 120 service sectors.
In October 2021 the WTO conducted its eighth review of China’s trade policies and practices. The review report fully recognised China’s efforts in supporting the multilateral trading system and its active role within the WTO.
A leading official of the UN Conference on Trade and Development pointed out that, over the past two decades, China has firmly supported the rules-based multilateral trading system; practised genuine multilateralism; fully participated in WTO negotiations; led talks in areas such as investment facilitation and e-commerce, and worked for up-to-date WTO rules.
China and the United States have highly complementary economies, deeply integrated interests, and mutually beneficial economic and trade ties. In 2021 bilateral trade exceeded a record USD 750 billion. The US Export Report 2022 released by the US-China Business Council showed that in 2021 exports of goods to China grew by 21% to USD 149 billion, supporting 858,000 US jobs. The Annual Business Survey 2020 report on Chinese companies in the United States, released by the China General Chamber of Commerce-USA, indicated that, as of 2019, Chinese CGCC member companies cumulatively invested more than USD 123 billion, as well as employed over 220 thousand people, and supported more than one million jobs in the United States. A study by the US-China Business Council showed that Chinese exports helped reduce consumer prices in the USA by 1 to 1.5 per cent, saving each US household USD 850 a year.
A report by Moody’s Investor Service was quoted as saying that US consumers bear 92.4% of the cost of imposing tariffs on Chinese products. Paul Krugman – 2008 Nobel Prize-winning economist – has incisively pointed out that the US trade policy towards China is disadvantageous and tariffs hurt the USA more than its intended targets.
On 18 May 2022 the National Retail Federation (NRF) wrote to President Biden asking for the removal of tariffs which, as outlined in the letter, could reduce consumer prices by up to 1.3%. The US Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, said that some tariffs on China’s products harm US consumers and businesses and that it is worth considering cutting them to lower inflation in the USA.
I believe that – like any war – a trade war is detrimental to both sides and that – unlike the Cold War, when an opponent wanted to impose its own ideologies and forms of government and State on the other – here we end up with a country, namely China, that only demands trade and does not advocate any political revolution.
3. China has been rapidly expanding its military capabilities in recent years, with a focus on developing new technologies such as hypersonic missiles and aircraft carriers. What do you think is driving this expansion, and how do you see China’s military posture evolving in the coming years?
With a country of 1.4 billion inhabitants, the Chinese armed forces are inevitably bound to expand and strengthen. Throughout Chinese history, the military has been a fundamental factor not only in the existence of the State, but also in the liberation struggles against Japan and the various doctrines that later tried to isolate the People’s Republic of China, such as Containment, etc. In a world led by a single leader, namely the United States of America, it is important to understand the moves of the States that seek not to be sidelined. China is certainly one of the States that aspire to play at least an equal role in international relations with the USA. The military force that China has been developing over the past fifteen years has seen a significant expansion of its fleet. According to a US study, the need to secure the islands in the South China Sea would be the crux of the whole project. The Chinese island of Hainan is in fact the starting point of a maritime route that would connect China with Pakistan in the Middle East and with Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
The Chinese strategy is to invest in civil (and not military) infrastructure such as ports, oil pipelines, roads, gas pipelines within allied countries that would thus ensure security and allied bases in the Indian Ocean. Security is a crucial factor in understanding this strategy because since 1993 China has become a net importer of oil (i.e. China’s oil demand is greater than supply) and oil is imported both by land and by sea. The latter option is obviously used with African and Middle Eastern countries, but the trade route is in one of the areas with the highest concentration of sabotage, kidnapping and violence by pirates. Having allies with whom to ensure security in enemy waters becomes therefore crucial. Allied bases, however, also have the function of enabling Chinese ships to have easy and quick passage through three of the world’s richest and most dangerous straits, namely the Bab al Mandeb Strait (between Yemen and Djibouti), the Aden Strait (between Iran and Oman) and the Malacca Strait (between Indonesia and Malaysia).
I do not see why China should not strengthen its strategic potential, since all countries – from the strongest to the medium ones – do so on a regular basis, as a function of planned commercial development. It is only natural that this should also involve the development of new technologies such as hypersonic missiles and aircraft carriers, as denying this smacks of a fairy tale told to children.
4. China has been increasingly active in international organizations such as the United Nations, and has been working to establish new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. What is China’s broader strategic vision for its role on the global stage, and how do you see this evolving in the coming years?
On 15 May 1648, the first treaty of the Peace of Westphalia was signed in Osnabrück by the Protestant princes, marking the end of the conflict between Sweden and the Habsburg Empire. Later, on 24 October 1648, the Catholic princes signed two additional treaties in Münster.
Westphalia – and, to an even greater extent, the Congress of Vienna (1 November 1814 – 9 June 1815) that replaced it – was also based on three pillars, namely multipolarism, a balance of powers and a concert of powers, which mainly meant the importance of the great powers: Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom. In many respects, the same principles were characteristic of the Yalta-Potsdam system, which determined relations between the two superpowers during the Cold War. The rules of international law were respected mainly because there was a force behind them that could not be ignored. This is the reason why peace reigned on the European continent, and the interests of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America clashed mainly in the countries on the periphery – i.e. by shifting the Second Thirty Years’ War (1914-1945) to the countries of the Third World and the Balkans, so that the war industries in the West and in the East would anyway have their theatres and market outlets. Little could the People’s Republic of China do by calling the former social-imperialists and the latter imperialists tout court, and branding them both as hegemonists.
As stated by Henry Kissinger, when in the early 1970s the People’s Republic of China embarked on its re-entry into the international diplomatic system at Zhou Enlai’s initiative and, at the end of that decade, on its full entry into the international scene thanks to Deng Xiaoping, its human and economic potential was vast, but its technology and actual power were relatively limited.
China’s growing economic and strategic capabilities have meanwhile forced the United States to measure up – for the first time in its history – to a geopolitical competitor whose resources are potentially comparable to its own.
Each side sees itself as an unicum, but in a different way. The United States acts on the assumption that its values are universally applicable and will eventually be adopted everywhere. China, on the other hand, expects that the uniqueness of its ultra-millennial civilisation and impressive economic leap forward will inspire other countries to emulate it so as to break free from imperialist domination and show respect for Chinese priorities.
Both the US missionary impulse based on a sort of “manifest destiny” and the Chinese sense of grandeur and cultural eminence – of China as such, including Taiwan – imply a kind of subordination-fear of each other. Due to the nature of their economies and high technology, each country is affecting what the other has hitherto considered its core interests.
In the 21st century China seems to have embarked on playing an international role to which it considers itself entitled by its achievements over the millennia. The United States, on the other hand, is acting to project power, purpose, and diplomacy around the world to maintain a global balance established in its post-war experience, responding to tangible and imaginary challenges to this world order.
For both sides’ leaders, these security requirements seem evident, and are supported by their respective publics. Yet security is only part of the grand discourse. The key issue for the planet’s existence is whether the two giants can learn to combine the inevitable strategic rivalry with a concept and practice of coexistence. It is for this reason that China is increasingly active within international organisations to stabilise its role on the evolving global scene.
5. What is your perspective on the potential military applications of China’s space program, such as anti-satellite weapons or space-based surveillance systems?
Let us start by saying that the successes of the advanced Soviet missile war industry of the 1950s-1960s and the refined and extremely rich US military technology of the 1960s-1970s were certainly not due to moral missions in favour of knowledge and mankind or anything else, but were an extreme arms race. Denying this is tantamount to telling jokes in a bar. The same holds true for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s. President Reagan at least had the good taste not to describe it with do-gooding rhetoric in favour of science and the welfare of peoples on Earth. Moreover, anti-satellite weapons and space intelligence systems or space-based surveillance, as you call it, have existed for decades.
Today the People’s Republic of China is also capable of navigating in space. One thing must be said: the competition is based not on the hope of reaching Mare Tranquillitatis (the Sea of Tranquillity) on the Moon or Utopia Planitia (the Nowhere Land Plain) on Mars, and from there bombing the District of Columbia.
Let us go back in time. Faced with the US and Soviet successes in the space field, Mao Zedong in the 1960s was shocked and asked: “How can we be considered a powerful country? We cannot even shoot a potato into space!!!”
Years later, in the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping replied to him: “If China had not a nuclear or a hydrogen bomb or had not launched satellites since the 1960s, it would not be called an important and greatly influential country and would not have its current international status”. Therefore, in the 21st century, manned space flight represents all of this.
On 25 December 2021, NASA launched the James Webb space telescope for infrared astronomy, capable of analyses considered impossible until a few years ago, i.e. taking detailed, full-colour pictures of an exoplanet. The James Webb telescope is completely different from those in space. It gives the possibility to observe the reflected light of exoplanets and the electromagnetic spectrum in order to detect potential biological or mineral traces. The future lies in space research, not in Star Wars, as well as in reaching the nearest asteroids and meteorites, and looking for habitable exoplanets in the distant but not remote future. On our Earth, mineral raw materials are running out. The same holds true for water, and therefore space exploration today is not aimed to wipe the opponent off the face of the earth, but to collaborate between superpowers to seek alternatives to the depletion of land and even water resources that currently – and we do not know yet for how long – permit these high levels of technology. The Chinese space programme aims primarily at this and not at destroying potential opponents, without whom the real conquest of space would not be possible.
6. How do you see China and Russia collaborating or competing in areas such as energy, technology, and military affairs?
From the tsarist expansion to the subsequent unequal treaties, until the crisis in the 1960s with the Soviet Union – as the latter had excluded it from the possibility of having the nuclear weapon, fearing the populous and enthusiastic heavy-handed neighbour that later brilliantly shifted the issue to the ideological side, thus eroding Soviet power over many of the world’s ruling and non-ruling Communist parties – China, per se – and I am not just referring to the People’s Republic of China (1949-2023) – had always held off first St Petersburg and then the Kremlin. For China – indeed for the Middle Empire – a strong Russia on the border is a disadvantage, but a weak neighbour which, in turn, can be other-directed by third parties – as happened in the 1990s – is also dangerous. The traditional solution of China’s two-thousand-year-old diplomacy is to seek a balance that does not create crises in Eurasia which, as is well known, is the last resource reservoir on planet Earth. In 2021, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the signing of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, relations between the two countries entered their third decade of stability without any form of military alliance, or even Chinese support for the invasion of Ukraine. It should also be said that arms sales to one side are counterbalanced by the other side’s same action.
7. The United States has accused China of being a major threat to its cybersecurity, with allegations of state-sponsored hacking and cyber espionage. What is your perspective on this accusation, and how do you see the cybersecurity relationship between the US and China evolving in the future?
From time immemorial, intelligence or espionage, or whatever you call it, has always been adopted simultaneously by the parties involved, with the most efficient means of the time, ranging from smoke signals to sympathetic ink, from cartographic cryptography to Enigma, from spy planes to the famous James Bond-style mini cameras. Today it is the same: the fear of espionage – be it cyber, cybernetic or satellite espionage – is two-faced, and the accusations of one side to the other are mirrored by those of the other to the one side. They therefore cancel each other with the result that whoever is better equipped knows more than the one who is less prepared. There are no victims and oppressors, there are no good guys and bad guys. There is only the reason of State, as Machiavelli teaches us.
8. Russia has been accused of meddling in the 2016 US Presidential election through hacking and cyber espionage. How do you see China’s relationship with Russia in the realm of cybersecurity, and do you think China could be implicated in similar activities?
You know, I am merely a business manager, a geopolitical scholar and a university professor. Part of my answer on China-Russia relations is under point 6. However, in order to fully answer this brilliant but very difficult question of yours, we should address to the highest-ranking and most arcane levels in the USA, Russia and China.
Thank you for the interview.
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