Forge international cooperation less focused on US

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/30 16:48:39

Editor's Note:

"In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power," said Yuval Noah Harari (Harari), history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and international best-selling author in his most recent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. What are today's greatest challenges and choices? Is a new world war coming? When data is becoming the most important asset in the 21st century, how to regulate the ownership of data? Harari shared his views over these issues in an exclusive interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin.

GT: US President Donald Trump recently said he intended to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. In your latest book, you said "some world leaders tend to talk loud but are very careful about actually launching wars". Do you think Trump is becoming an exception?

I don't know about Trump in person. I am not specialist on the US. But so far, the world is still in the most peaceful era that we have ever seen. More people die today from eating too much than from human violence, which is an amazing achievement. But we need to remember that the current era of peace is not the result of some divine miracle. It is the result of humans making wise decisions, especially about greater international cooperation.

If humans start making unwise decisions and if international cooperation deteriorates, war can return and even in a worse form than ever before, especially nuclear war.

By now, many people around the world forget about the danger of nuclear war. In the 1950s and 1960s, everybody was very much afraid that nuclear war is inevitable. But the Cold War ended peacefully and nobody used nuclear weapons since 1945. So people almost take it for granted and forget about it. But the danger is still there. If we are not careful, the result of greater international tensions might be a worst Cold War or even the eruption of the WWIII.

When it comes to war, there is a built-in imbalance between wisdom and stupidity. It takes a lot of wise people to cooperate to make peace. But sometimes it is enough to have just one fool in order to make war. I am not referring to any leader in particular. The unfortunate imbalance in nature of the world makes it more difficult to have cooperation than war.

GT: Do we have enough wise politicians now?

I think political wisdom now is in short supply, especially because politicians lack a meaningful and positive vision for the future.

When you look at the world today, you see that in many countries, politicians are no longer able to create meaningful visions for the future. Where will we be in 30 or 40 years? Instead, the only thing they offer people is nostalgic fantasies about the past.

They imagine some golden era in the past and promise people that we'll go back there. This is just a fantasy. Both because the past wasn't great at all - I am a historian, I can tell you, it wasn't a lot of fun to live in the past - and because in any case we cannot go back there.

New technologies are completely changing the world, especially artificial intelligence (AI) and biotechnology. We need to build a new vision for the future, which takes into account the new technologies and the new danger of climate change.

Unfortunately too many politicians around the world either don't understand the new challenges or they don't know what to do about it. So they retreat to these nostalgic fantasies. This is a great danger. Unless we are able to formulate a global positive vision for the future, we will not be able to deal with the problems of nuclear war, climate change and technological destruction.

GT: In China, many people are concerned about the trade war between China and the US. Where do you think it is headed?

At present the trend is greater isolationism and less cooperation, first in trade and then in other fields.

What I find even more peculiar is not the trade war between the US and China, which you can say it's natural because they are rivals in many ways, but the current US government attacking its own allies. It's undermining the traditional alliances that the US had with Canada, Mexico, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea.

I really don't understand why the US government is doing it. But the result is the entire structure of cooperation, that was built over the decades, in the last generations, is being destabilized and undermined. Even if the US government changes its policies now, people are unlikely to trust it again, the way they did before. Let's say in 2020, Trump loses the election, the new US president does a U-turn and tries to strengthen ties with Canada, Germany and China. This time, people will not be able to trust the US like before. Because they will say, how can we know what the next president will do? If we have to wait every four years to know what will happen, we cannot build anything long-term.

The basic trust between countries is being undermined, not just between the US and China, but also between the US and Canada, the US and Germany. This is very problematic and I guess one of the ways forward is to forge international cooperation and trust which is less focused on the US. All the other countries don't wait for the US to lead them and create global consensus, but to build a global consensus that can function no matter who is the president of the US.

GT: You mentioned that in 1997, then US president Bill Clinton said Beijing's policies are "on the wrong side of history." Today, few would confidently declare so. However, quite a few foreign media, politicians and observers tend to ignore China's development over the past decades while focusing on their ideological divergences with Beijing. What's your take on the issue?

I think it's changing now. Everybody is realizing the immense development of China, that is becoming both economically and politically equal of the US. And the future of humankind in the 21st century depends to a large extent on the type of relations between these two superpowers. If they get into an arms race or a new kind of Cold War, especially in fields like AI, it will be the worst thing for the world. If there is an AI arms race, it means nobody will be able to regulate AI. Nobody would like to stop dangerous developments because they would fear the other side winning. This is the greatest danger that we are now facing.

I hope that the US and China are able to overcome ideological differences, their tensions and so forth. At least to some extent, they should be able to cooperate in fields that are crucial for the survival of humankind.

At present, tensions between the US and China have increased and there is less and less cooperation. I don't know how this can be reversed. Last month, I was in the US and now I am in China. What I try to do is to tell people, look, I am not an expert on US or China, there are legit concerns on both sides. But you need to, to some extent, look beyond all these controversies. When it comes to the really big issues, climate change or AI, unless we find a way to cooperate, it will be very bad for all of mankind.

GT: An old Chinese saying goes: "Those long divided shall be united; those long united shall be divided: such is the way of the universe." It describes the cycle of intense warfare at regular intervals. As a historian, what is your view about this cycle?

It's not completely accurate. If you look at the long-term development of history, you see that unity, in the long run, is stronger than division. Yes you see the empires rise and fall. You see cooperation and war again. But over the long run, you see greater and greater cooperation.

10,000 years ago, mankind was divided into many small tribes, which had very little connection or cooperation. Now the entire world is part of a single civilization with very strong economic ties, a lot of agreements about political or cultural issues. Of course, there are disagreements, but the greatest disagreement we have is usually with our family members. We fight with our own family much more than with complete strangers. In the international arena, it is also like that.

Take an example from sports, not politics. Think about the last football World Cup in Russia. A thousand years ago, it was just unthinkable to get people from Argentina and France and Japan to come to Russia and play games together. This was technically impossible. There was no transportation. Even if you managed to bring all them to one place, they couldn't agree on rules. A thousand years ago, there wasn't a single game that all people in the world played. Now, it's feasible. Even if the national teams play to beat one another, the football world cup is an amazing display of human harmony and unity.

This doesn't guarantee that there will not be a war or trade disagreements or so forth. But I do think we need to realize that all humans are part of a single civilization, with a lot of internal conflicts, but also a lot of basic agreements. If you think about trade, yes, there are disagreements, but everybody uses the same currency. Like dollars are used in US, China and France. A thousand years ago there was nothing like that. So I think in the long run, the unity trend is stronger than disunity trend. 

GT: Decades ago, people were discussing the advantages of globalization. But now a growing number of divergences among countries across the globe are seen and anti-globalization forces are rising. What caused such a dramatic change?

There are too many reasons.

Like every major historical development, globalization is not all good. It has its down side. Some people lose their livelihood. Once people move from a dream about globalization to the reality, they realize it's not as good as we thought. There are problems, so opposition is growing.

In the 20th century, the leaders of globalization are mostly the Western powers, first and foremost the US, and previously Britain. They gained a lot from globalization, free trade and so forth. But now they look around and realize, "yes, maybe we gained, but actually other countries like China gained far more, we don't want it so much." Now the previous leader of globalization is becoming the leader of the forces opposing globalization.

But I think in the long run, everybody including the Americans should realize that good global connections serve the interests of everybody. If globalization falls apart, everybody will suffer, including Americans, not just because of economic hardships, but also because the three major problems of the 21st century, our global problems - nuclear war, climate change and technological destruction. If we don't have global cooperation, we cannot solve any of these problems. You cannot deal with climate change on the level of a single nation, and also cannot regulate AI and biotechnology just in one country.

The US government has regulations about AI and bioengineering. These regulations will not be binding on Chinese or Russian scientists. Very soon the Americans will start breaking their own regulations because they wouldn't like to stay behind the Chinese or Russians.

For instance, let's say the US government bans genetic engineering of human babies. But if Chinese, Japanese or Russians are doing it, very soon even Americans will start genetic engineering of human babies. If you think doing genetic experiments on human babies is a very bad idea, a dangerous idea, the only way to prevent it is through strong global cooperation. So you can make an agreement about these technologies, which Chinese, Japanese and Americans all agree on. This is something that should concern the Americans even more than issues of trade.

GT: But the future outlook of effective cooperation seems to be a bit pessimistic because more and more politicians are advocating "their own country first." What do you think?

I think you are right. This is really happening and is very dangerous.

When I say we need global cooperation to solve global problems, it doesn't guarantee that people will actually do it. You have a lot of examples from history that people behave in destructive ways, in ways that don't really serve their best interests. So I hope we will be able to overcome this current trend of growing nationalism and isolationism.

This is a part of what I try to do with my books - to change the conversation.

When you have all these nationalist politicians that try to convince people to support them by talking about things like immigration, terrorism, one country losing jobs to another country… I try to change the conversation and tell them, yes, immigration and terrorism are all important problems, but they are not our most important problems. The most important problems are nuclear war, climate change and technological destruction. The only way to do something effective about theses three problems is global cooperation. So if you vote for some nationalist politicians, who undermine global cooperation, maybe this is effective against immigration and terrorism. But this guarantees that we will not be able to solve climate change and technological destruction.

GT: You mentioned that today the richest 1 percent own half the world's wealth. The essence of this problem is inequality, and inequality has existed throughout human history. In the world that is now and temporarily dominated by human beings, is there any solution to this problem?

Inequality always exists, but not to the same level. When you look at long-term history, inequality goes up and down, it's not constant. Some societies are far more unequal than others.

We cannot create a perfectly equal world. Maybe we won't like to live in a perfectly equal world where everybody has exactly the same. But through cooperation, we can create a more equal world and prevent the situation where all the power and all the wealth are concentrated in very few hands.

The key to do that in the 21st century is regulation of ownership of data.

Now data is the most important asset. Thousands of years ago, the most important economic asset was land. Our politics was a struggle to control land. If too much land was concentrated in the hands of aristocracies, you had an extremely unequal society. People found ways to prevent this from happening. In the last 200 years, land became less important. Machines became the most important assets. Over the last 200 years, people found ways to regulate the ownership of factories and machinery, for example, by anti-monopoly action and by raising taxes on some people to provide education and welfare to other people. This can prevent extreme inequality.

Now data is replacing machines as the most important asset of the economy. If too much data is owned by a small number of corporations, or people or even the government, again you'll have an extremely unequal society. The key for equality in the 21 century is not land, machines, but data. How do you regulate the ownership of data? We still don't know. This is just a beginning. We have thousands of years of experience in regulating the ownership of land. But we don't have experience in regulating ownership of data. This is the big challenge now for politicians, lawyers, philosophers to find ways to prevent the concentration of too much data in too few hands. 

GT: About data, you pointed out in your book that people feel that they click on the headlines of their free will, but in fact they have been hacked. Is the situation inevitable?

It is becoming possible.

In the past, it wasn't possible. In order to hack a human being, you need a good understanding of biology, a lot of data and computing power. If you have these three, you can hack a human being. To hack a human being means to be able to predict your decisions and to manipulate your desire and choices. You think you choose something because you wanted it, but actually you are manipulated to want it. In the past, it wasn't possible to do that. People did not have a good understanding of biology, especially of the brain, people did not have enough data, and they did not have computing power. But now, we have all three. So it is becoming possible.

The danger is, if we don't regulate this, the result might be an extremely totalitarian regime, in which a small number of people control all the data, so they know everything about everybody and they can manipulate everybody all the time. You cannot resist them, because when you just begin to think about resisting them, they already know that you are thinking that. We have never encountered such a situation before.

This is not inevitable. We can do things about it. Technology is not deterministic. You can use the same technologies to created very different kinds of societies. But to prevent the worst outcomes, we need to be aware of the danger and we need to start doing things today.

GT: You said that in the current era people have lost faith in the old stories, like modern values of liberty and globalization, and we are in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger. How long will it last?

I don't know. It's not something inevitable. The key to formulate a new vision for the future, a new story of humankind, is first of all to be aware of the dangers and the possibilities, and above all, the dangers and the possibilities of new technologies. Scientists, politicians and ordinary people need to be better informed about what AI and bio- engineering mean.

I don't think every person or every politician needs a PhD in computer science or biology. This is impossible. But you do need a basic understanding. For example, a lot of people, including politicians, think AI is not such a big danger, because AI will never be able to understand human feelings or compete with people in jobs that demand creativity. They just don't understand AI.

AI is already becoming better than humans in understanding certain human emotions. Today, we have reached a point where machines are able to tell your emotional state from the tone of your voice better than many people. In certain fields, like in games, chess, machines are able to display greater creativity than human being. So anybody who says computers will never be able to be creative, we don't need to worry about it, just don't understand the challenge we are facing. A politician doesn't need a PhD in computer science, but politicians need to understand AI, because this is going to change the economy and society and our lives more than almost anything else.

GT: You once said "Humans are a post-truth species," but is there any connection between the current emergence of the "post-truth" era and information explosion?

Yes, the current era of information explosion changes the way of censorship and propaganda.

In the past, information was very scarce. So if you wanted to manipulate people, you tried to block the flow of information. There was very little information so it was easy to block it completely. Now, there is so much information that it is almost impossible to completely block its flow. Instead of what people increasingly do is flooding people with more information and try to destroy them.

You manipulate people by drawing their attention to irrelevant things, to less important things, to fake news, to things like that. You do that by getting to know the weaknesses of these people. For example, people worry about terrorism, even though terrorists kill a tiny number of people every year, like in the US, since 9/11, terrorists kill a few dozen people every year on average, equal to what car accidents kill per day. But you bomb out people with stories about terrorism, making them to spend an entire hour every day to read terrifying stories about terrorists. It's like feeding you fear about terrorism. You think this is the worst problem in the world and you don't pay attention to other things like climate change. This is how it works. You don't censor information about climate change. The internet is full of information about climate change. But a lot of people don't believe in climate change because again they are too busy reading stories about terrorism.

GT: Just like what you mentioned at the beginning of the book, "the world is deluged by irrelevant information". But quite a few people seem to be used to all this overwhelming irrelevant information. Have you noticed any sign of change in this respect?

I hope there will be change.

Again, I don't know what will happen. At present, you don't see any significant change. One of the problems is the structure of the news market. At present in much of the world, the principle of news market is getting exciting news for free, but in exchange for your attention. The really important resource is your attention, which everybody is competing for. The more exciting, the funnier, the more fearful the stories are, they get more of your attention. The easiest way to grab somebody's attention is pressing their emotional buttons - the fear button, hate button. It's like a vicious circle. Every day, you feed your hatred, anger and fear. It becomes worse and worse. We need to switch to a different model, in which the main thing is not exciting news that captures your attention, but really important and true stories.

The problem is many times important and true stories are complicated stories. Maybe they are less emotionally engaging. We have a problem in our brain in the way evolution shaped us. Evolution shaped our brain in such a way that something like a small terrorist attack grabs our attention far more effectively than a global crisis of climate. We need to realize this is how our brain functions and need to find ways to work around these built-in biological biases.


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