The 2 arguments against the motion « Does the 21st century belong to China » that F. Zakaria and H. Kissinger missed

In the Munk debate on China, held in Torinto in 2011, the motion “Does the 21st century belong to China” was debated. F. Zakaria and H. Kissinger were arguing against it and they won, their arguments being judged more convincing than those of D. Li and N. Ferguson.

I’d like to add 2 arguments against the motion that F. Zakaria and H. Kissinger failed to mention during the debate :

  • First, as Georges Friedman is arguing in “The next 100 years”, China, labeled a “paper Tiger”, is following Japan’s trajectory of bad loans, and will hit the wall as Japan did in the early 1990s. This very likely downturn will lead to political instability and might even threaten the country’s unity, preventing an aging China from playing any dominant role in the 21stcentury:
    • “China is not truly capitalist in the sense that the markets do not determine capital allocation. Who you know counts for much more than whether you have a good business plan. As a result, not surprisingly, a remarkably large number of those loans have gone bad – “nonperforming”, in the jargon of banking. The amount is estimated at somewhere between $600 billion and $900 billion, or between a quarter and a third of China’s GDP, a staggering amount. China is Japan on steroids. It’s not only an Asian state that values social relations above economic discipline but a communist state that allocates money politically and manipulates economic data. It is also a state in which equity holders – demanding profits- are less important than bankers and government, who demand cash.  As Japan did, China relies heavily on exports, has a staggeringly high growth rate, and faces collapse when growth rate begins even to barely slow. Japan’s bad debt rate around 1990 was, by my estimate, about 20% of GDP. China’s, under the most conservative estimate, is about 25% – and I would argue the number is closer to 40%. But even a 25% is staggeringly high. China has expanded extraordinarily for the last 30 years. At some point the business cycle, culling weak business, must rear its ugly head – and it will.”
  • Second, as Ian Morris is arguing in his brillant “Why the West rules – for now”, we underestimate how much the pace at which technological progress is increasing is completely changing the game in the 21stcentury, rendering the motion completely irrelevant :
    •  “the Singularity will render ten-thousand-year-old categories such as East and West completely irrelevant. Instead of transforming geography, it might abolish it. The merging of mortals and machines will mean new ways of capturing and using energy, new ways of living together, new ways of fighting, and new ways of communicating.”
    • “The 21st century is going to be a race, a race not between East and West, but between Singularity (scientific progress for the better) and Nightfall (total disruption of human civilization due to unmanageable environmental changes and/or nuclear war). There will be no silver medal. Either we will soon (perhaps before 2050) begin a transformation even more profound than the industrial revolution which may make most of the current problems irrelevant, or we will stagger into a collapse like no other. It is hard to see how any intermediate outcome – a compromise, say, in which everyone gets a bit richer, China gradually overtakes the West, and things otherwise go on much as before – can work. This means that the next 40 years will be the most important in history.”
    • “Were we to avoid Nightfall, Singularity would culminate with merging of human and machine intelligence in the 2040s. Technologists in the US army say that “war is already moving beyond human space as weapons become too fast, too small, too numerous and create an environment too complex for humans to direct”, they say “technology is rapidly taking us to a place where we may not want to go, but probably are unable to avoid”. The merging of humans and computers may be just a brief phase before what we condescendingly call “artificial intelligence” replaces Homo Sapiens as thoroughly as Homo Sapiens replaced all earlier ape-men.”
    • “Rising social development has always changed the meaning of geography, and in the 21st century, development will rise so high that geography will cease to mean anything at all. The only thing that will count is the race between a Singularity and Nightfall. To keep Nightfall at bay we will have to globalize more and more of our concerns, and arguments about which part of the world has the highest social development will matter less and less.”

The second argument might be labeled pure Sci Fi, but keep in mind that the motion was about the 21st century, not just the first 30 years of it, and when we know for instance that it took less than 70 years in the 20th century between the first plane and a man on the moon, taking into account how technological progress is accelerating and where science stands now, I think Ian Morris’ argument should be considered very seriously.

Even before the Singularity renders the East-West rivalry useless in the 21st century, America might regain a firmer lead on the world, as Ian Morris envisons :

“The ongoing revolution in science will be the biggest and the fastest of all. Its core, many futurists agree, lies in linked transformations of genetics robotics, nanotechnology, and computing, and its consequences will overturn much of what we have known. Eastern scientists have made plenty of contributions to the new technologies (robotics for instance is as advanced in Japan and South Korea as anywhere), but so far the revolution has been overwhelmingly Western. This might mean that the pundits who point to America’s decline and a coming Chinese age will be proved wrong after all : if the united States dominates the new technologies as thoroughly as Britain dominated the industrial ones two centuries ago, the genetic/nanotechnology/robotics revolution might shift wealth and power westward even more dramatically than the industrial revolution did.”

Here are some examples of such a shift :

    • quote from the Economist « The F35 Joint Strike Fighter will certainly be the last manned strike fighter, the Unmanned Aicraft Systems Flight Plan assumes that the next generation of drones will have artificial intelligence giving them a high degree of operational autonomy including – if legal and ethical questions can be resolved – the ability to shoot to kill »
    • Look at what can be done when you reduce the size of flying autonomous robots, the ease to quickly change trajectory, make sure not to miss 6’55 , 10’04 , 12’47 and 15’08, and think how the US army could use it

To explore further these fascinating perspectives, I suggest you read  my piece on how biology and artificial intelligence could be intertwined : would you rather see a cow whose brain will be replaced by AI, or human mind embedded in an insect-like robot? It’s likely that before 2100 both will be possible, read this piece : “Human mind VS AI “. And make sure to visit my Page on Facebook about Robots.

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