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China has made several efforts to preserve their chip access, including smuggling, buying chips that are just under the legal limit of performance, and investing in their domestic chip industry.[1]

Sounds about right?

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This post centres around an email I sent to the Center for AI Safety (CAIS) expressing concern about their 2023-08-15 newsletter's coverage of US-China competition in the AI space[2], but the overall point is broader. There are some ways of discussing the topic of international relations regarding AI which strike me as un-nuanced in a counterproductive and dangerous way, by hiding certain truths or emphasising others, and supporting a conflict-oriented mindset.

In writing about this, I'm also gesturing at something about the more general topic of 'how to think and write about politically-charged topics'.

Jump to the summary if you are in a hurry.

This conversation really is important, which is why I think it's worth a public message discussing particular statements, but this should be understood as constructive criticism and part of a broader conversation which society, and especially the community of those focused on AI safety, needs to have. The CAIS newsletters are worth a (not unquestioning!) read, including the edition in question.

The particulars in this message serve as good exemplars of the problems and questions I have, and I'd be interested in responses from CAIS but even more so in remarks more broadly on the topic from anyone interested. The public conversation about this appears from my perspective to sometimes be broken. If that is so, I would like it to be rectified, and if not, I would like to be put right myself, the better to prioritise in my own work!

Specifics, CAIS case study

Here, quoted[3], is my response to the CAIS letter, which serves as an initial dialogue opener and the core of this post:

Hello,

I've been a supportive reader for some time and am myself an AI safety researcher. I'm generally very impressed and encouraged by your newsletters! - but I was disappointed and concerned by the phrasing (and mindset it can encourage) regarding US-China competition in the letter dated 16th August ('US-China Competition on AI Chips, ...').

In general I'm very wary of messaging which could inflame a them-vs-us mindset, in short mainly because I think it a) destroys humans' ability to think sensibly and b) tends to foreclose win-win outcomes. I expect these brief points to be clear and to have rich referents in your mental pictures of the world, but please correct me if not!

Interjection: I'm referring to the vicinity of mind-killing politics

I think your letter skirted close to dangerously simplified presentation in this way. I would not normally spend my time or yours on a criticism of one section of a newsletter, but in this case I consider it worthwhile because your letter is close to the Pareto frontier on nuance, correctness, helpfulness, and reach (and it pays to try to nudge such things in good directions), but this kind of message needs to be delivered with care to avoid misunderstanding and harm.

Hopefully my pointing this out, accompanied by a few select quotes, is enough to encourage you to carefully take this criticism into account, but I'd happily expand more if you like!

Without further ado, a few quotes and my response:

The US and China have been competing for access to these chips for years.

Kind of true, but really US-based and China-based international corporations (as well as other orgs) have sought access to this scarce resource. Competition for this particular resource is mostly zero-sum across all of these entities, importantly including intra-US and intra-China.

Where market-share is near zero-sum (i.e. for direct competitors) the market-share outcomes may be greater-than-linearly zero-sum in this resource (your minor/temporary lack of chips could be my major gain of market-share), which might better warrant the term 'competing', but this effect is actually much stronger intra-country/bloc rather than inter-, due to respective markets! i.e. Google and Microsoft really care about each other's chip access in a way that they only do to a weaker degree about Alibaba's.

Interjection: To emphasise, 'the US and China have been competing' doesn't literally preclude belief in intra-bloc competition. But there's a strong implicature that intra-bloc is (relatively) unimportant, while in fact the mechanism I mentioned here increases intra-bloc competition (which I think is borne out by observation to date).

When governments have paid attention, they have indeed made moves which adjust share (but also supply, as you've noted later, making it nonzero-sum, in chips at least). It's unclear (to me) exactly what incentives have motivated each move, but certainly they're not the actions of monolithic or coherent entities 'The US' and 'China'. And it's certainly not the case that where such activity changes chip share, it's collected by the acting entity. Non-governments have also made moves adjusting chip share, for example the case you cite of Nvidia (a 'US' company) deliberately rules-lawyering the US gov in order to supply more chips to various China-based companies!

Typically when nations are used as agentic subject nouns it refers to the government and/or military of said country. I don't think there's a reading of these statements in those terms which is true, and I'm not aware of any other plausible reading which is true.


China has made several efforts to preserve their chip access, including smuggling, buying chips that are just under the legal limit of performance, and investing in their domestic chip industry.

I dislike this sentence and think it is false! Who is this 'China'? Did said unified entity carry out all of these activities? Was it coherently pursuing all of these 'several efforts' to some particular end?

Interjection: I feel that I was unkind in my tone here. The kind of claim exemplified in the letter and in other places has proved impossible for me to map to something sincerely resembling reality without caveating so much as to be essentially starting from scratch i.e. it looks like a kind of non-proposition or emotive filler. I would be very interested to hear from people who have a better parse on this to help me understand! My crux discussion below the rest of the email contains my current best attempts.

Meanwhile, the United States has struggled to build American chip manufacturing capacity, and has taken further steps to prevent Americans from investing in Chinese technology.

This one is poor for the same reasons, though not quite as bad (perhaps because the authors are American/anglophone and have a closer perspective on the nuance).

The discussion after this point in the letter is relatively good and nuanced! It names (some of) the individual orgs and companies, and makes clearer the multiplicity of others. All further references to nations as agentic subject nouns appear to be consistent with a conventional reading referring to the respective governments.

I'm interested to know how the rather good detail got paired with a rather harmful introduction and I urge you to consider the processes and thinking which gave rise to this section of the otherwise good letter.

Thanks,

Oly

This was a brief email intended to convey something I expected to be quickly-graspable with a few pointers. CAIS content suggests that they have a broader familiarity with associated facts, but it seems to be digested/compressed here in a way which is needlessly and harmfully lossy.

In particular, the statements abstract very neatly over pre-drawn boundaries (national i.e. 'US' and 'China') and furthermore assign a greater sense of coherence and agency to those abstractions than is warranted. At least some possible such statements must be true-ish (or we would not have those abstractions), but this convenient compression happens in too many conversations to be a coincidence! Said pre-existing abstraction boundaries are already salient in the information ecosystem, and laden with emotional and political baggage. This same phenomenon (it sometimes seems like a pre-written bottom line but in implicature?) appears in other publications by other orgs and in verbal conversations I've witnessed or been part of.

The fact that I, a relative governance rookie (I'm focused mainly on technical matters), struggle to rectify or understand this makes me wonder: am I missing something? Is there a relevant factor I'm unaware of? More concerningly, is there some terrible equilibrium which prevents more involved people from speaking more clearly here? I think more likely the abstractions ('US' and 'China') have a background potency which distorts perceptions and shapes how people communicate.

Possible cruxes and areas of high uncertainty

Implicit in my own discussion is the background assumption that the main concern is about possible direct or near-direct impacts[4] of AI deployments by government entities (or military). This seems to me the obvious reading when people use countries as agentic subject nouns. ('China [the governmental entity] has made several efforts'[5].) In this framing, I can't rectify some of the things people say with reality. But some alternative concerns might fit the bill, and if so, this is evidence that people are talking past each other, and we should aim to frame concerns more clearly!

I've never focused intently on this area, but have had a handful of conversations about this over the years, and among relevant cruxes seems to be a family of questions along the lines of

How quickly/totally/coherently could US gov/CCP capture AI talent/artefacts/compute within its jurisdiction and redirect them toward excludable destructive ends? Under what circumstances would they want/be able to do that?

People's intuitions here appear to differ a lot, and data might be hard to come by!

It seems plain that nations are not currently meaningful players in AI development and deployment, absent conspiracy-level secrecy. So to support the apparent take that they are, we may need to imagine that they could ably/rapidly become meaningful players in AI development and deployment, hence the above cruxes.

Depending on the answers to these questions, one might perceive various goings-on which happen to occur under one or other jurisdiction to have greater import on the international stage and perhaps to warrant treating national or multi-national blocs as more coherent entities than they really are at present, for the purposes of AI discussion. ('China [the government] has [allowed/encouraged made] several efforts [because eventually they will probably seize the gains/means]'[7].)

Other possible cruxes, more guesswork:

  1. Perhaps the concern is about indirect (e.g. economic) impacts of non-government entities' AI activities leading to some (risky) change in balance of power (between existing governments/blocs)
    • Then, abstracting references to lots of individuals and groups via their home country might be a move which is writer-intuitive, even if nonstandard and reader-confusing. ('China [the impersonal collective economic entity] has made several efforts'[8].)
    • The additional step in this type of theory, namely that indirect effects cause a risky change in balance of power, should really be spelled out if it is loadbearing
    • The use of countries as agentic subject nouns is difficult to justify under this reading
  2. Perhaps the concern is indeed about direct impacts, but wielded by non-government entities (who remain the major players in development and deployment of AI)
    • If so, the conversation should be about general/global resource/capabilities rather than inter-bloc 'competition'...
    • ...unless we also posit that inter-bloc non-government conflict is liable to be much worse than intra-bloc[9]
    • Similarly, if these are loadbearing assumptions, they really ought to be spelled out clearly
    • The use of countries as agentic subject nouns could be justified at a stretch here, but only by first spelling out the reasoning
  3. Perhaps the concern is that, regardless of the actual impact of AI resources, apparent competition could lead to inflammation of traditional conflict, or weaken defenses against such inflammation
    • Then, reporting on the apparent competition via a mention and with explicit caveat, would make sense! ('China [gov/military] has [been perceived as having] made several efforts... [but the reality is more nuanced]'[10].)
    • Alternatively, reporting on actual conflict could be used as evidence for the claim (that apparent competition inflames conflict), but only by also pointing to the stated or implied reasons for the conflict. ('China has made several efforts... [in each case citing US provocation as justification]'[11].)
    • In either case, there are additional claims being made that can not be left implicit, and require supporting argument

Speculation

As it is, for me, the evidence seems to suggest that an AI race, if it is happening at all, is being run by (mainly US- and UK-based) companies with little or no oversight from governments or militaries. Rather, governments are in a position to collectively act to diffuse the race! And they appear as likely to do this as to exacerbate it, from my limited viewpoint.

Separately, a lack of reliable alignment techniques and performance guarantees makes AI-powered belligerent national interest plays look more like bioweapons than like nukes - i.e. minimally-excludable - and perhaps mutually-knowably so! This presently damps the incentive to go after them. But proliferation of naively-aligned AI ('figure out what I want and make it happen') might make harm plays more excludable, exacerbating lose-lose or race game dynamics ('go and steal/destroy their stuff but don't let that happen to my stuff'). This concern in part motivates consideration of multi-principal-multi-agent delegation and the cooperative AI agenda.

Summary and takeaways

Un-nuanced coverage and discussion has the potential to inflame harmful confusion and us-vs-them mentality, which diminish the chance of safe outcomes.

  • China has made several efforts to preserve their chip access, including smuggling, buying chips that are just under the legal limit of performance, and investing in their domestic chip industry.

  • China [the governmental entity] has made several efforts...[5:1]

  • China [the government] has [allowed/encouraged made] several efforts [because eventually they will probably seize the gains/means]...[7:1]

  • China [the impersonal collective economic entity] has made several efforts...[8:1]

  • [People and organisations in] China [have has] made several efforts...[8:2]

  • China [gov/military] has [been perceived as having] made several efforts... [but the reality is more nuanced] [10:1]

  • China has made several efforts... [in each case citing US provocation as justification] [11:1]

  • ...?

When compressing discussion of political topics, be extra wary of compression which coincidentally abstracts over already-charged us-them divides (and be careful when phrasing comes too easily, lest you write bottom lines first)! You're more likely to be wrong (because your information ecosystem biases toward thinking in these terms, and because you might be mildly-to-severely mind-killed on the matter), and being wrong is more likely to be harmful (by reinforcing those dynamics in others).[12] The same vigilance applies to reading and listening.

My (not very informed) take is that governments are at this point as likely to want to defuse as to exacerbate an AI race, and those of us with any privileged insight or influence should avoid one-sided discussion of the matter (if anything preferring to focus on constructive, collaborative possibilities, the better to raise them to salience and generate common knowledge).

Most of my remarks here are somewhat weakly held (if forcefully stated) and it seems important to gather perspectives on this. Inform me! All responses will be gratefully received.


  1. Center for AI Safety, AI Safety Newsletter #19, 2023-08-15 ↩︎

  2. I'm supportive of some of CAIS' work, and the content of their newsletters (they have impressive breadth), and theirs is far from the only outfit which appears to produce confused or confusing messaging on the topic of US-China competition. In fact they seem to be better than many! ↩︎

  3. My response is at quote level 1. Excerpts from the CAIS letter are within, at quote level 2. I interject a little for the purposes of this post, without quotation. ↩︎

  4. e.g. deployment for weapons control or for offensive R&D (bio, materials, ...) ↩︎

  5. 'China [the governmental entity] has made several efforts' is a fairly standard use of language; governments are at least somewhat coherent and also do things with consequences and subsequent plans 'in mind'. This sentence has the disadvantage of being baldly false, though[6]. ↩︎ ↩︎

  6. (unless we posit a near-hivemind coherence to the people of China, which is absurd and obscene) ↩︎

  7. 'China [the government] has [allowed/encouraged made] several efforts [because eventually they will probably seize the gains/means]' is a big stretch of the language, but at least somewhat consistent. To support this reading, though, there's a substantial additional claim that needs to be justified. ↩︎ ↩︎

  8. 'China [the impersonal collective economic entity] has made several efforts' would be a rather nonstandard use of language; economies of billion+ people do not make 'efforts' with consequences or subsequent plans. Leaving aside the implicature of agency, though, this sentence is a closer fit to reality. '[People and organisations in] China [have has] made several efforts' would be even better. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  9. Should conflict between non-territorial entities be worse for inter-bloc than intra-bloc? I think the point I made previously about zero-sum market-share competition suggests the opposite. But humans' destructive jingoistic/xenophobic tendencies are real, and a point in favour. ↩︎

  10. 'China [gov/military] has [been perceived as having] made several efforts... [but the reality is more nuanced]' is in large part one of the messages of this post! I don't think the original letter in question can have meant this, but I do maintain it as a hypothesis for the more general case of compressed discussion of political things. People are often imagining third-party reactions when discussing political topics, and sometimes use-mention distinctions fail to come across. ↩︎ ↩︎

  11. 'China has made several efforts... [in each case citing US provocation as justification]' is something that could legitimately be said, and has a clear meaning, even if in this particular case it is false if we understand 'China' to be the CCP or military. ↩︎ ↩︎

  12. I'd tentatively go further and suggest you ought to train yourself to be appalled when you catch yourself doing this without justification because only then do you stand a chance of thinking clearly about politics. ↩︎

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Thanks for writing this. I think a lot of it is pointing at something important. I broadly agree that (1) much of the current AI governance and safety chat too swiftly assumes an us-v-them framing, and that (2) talking about countries as actors obscures a huge amount of complexity and internal debate.

On (2), I think this tendency leads to analysis that assumes  more coordination among governments, companies, and individuals in other countries than is warranted. When people talk about "the US" taking some action, readers of this Forum are much more likely to be aware of the nuance this ignores (e.g. that some policy may have emerged from much debate and compromise among different government agencies, political parties, or ideological factions). We're less likely to consider such nuances when people talk about "China" doing something.

That said, I think your claim that governments don't influence AI development [via semiconductor progress] is too strong. For example, this sentence:

It seems plain that nations are not currently meaningful players in AI development and deployment, absent conspiracy-level secrecy.

seems likely wrong to me. The phrasing ("it seems plain") also suggests to me that you should be somewhat less confident in your views on these issues overall.

Some examples of government being meaningful players:

There are also historical examples of government action shaping outcomes in the semiconductor (and therefore AI space). 

For example, early demand for semiconductors was driven by the US government's military and space program. And TSMC got started when the Taiwanese administration invited Morris Chang to start a semiconductor company in Taiwan (and provided half his start up funding) (source: I read this in Chip War, and that take is summarized on the Wikipedia page).

You write also that "Google and Microsoft really care about each other's chip access in a way that they only do to a weaker degree about Alibaba's." That may be true, I don't really know. But I'm pretty confident that the US government does care a lot about whether Google or Alibaba have access to more chips. Hence the export controls, subsidies, and regulations discussed above.

Thanks for this thoughtful response!

this tendency leads to analysis that assumes more coordination among governments, companies, and individuals in other countries than is warranted. When people talk about "the US" taking some action... more likely to be aware of the nuance this ignores... less likely to consider such nuances when people talk about "China" doing something

This seems exactly right and is what I'm frustrated by. Though, further than you give credit (or un-credit) for, frequently I come across writing or talking about "US success in AI", "US leading in AI", or "China catching up to US", etc. which are all almost nonsense as far as I'm concerned. What do those statements even mean? In good faith I hope for someone to describe what these sorts of claims mean in a way which clicks for me, but I have come to expect that there is probably none.

Do people actually think that Google+OpenAI+Anthropic (for sake of argument) are the US? Do they think the US government/military can/will appropriate those staff/artefacts/resources at some point? Are they referring to integration of contemporary ML/DS into the economy? The military? Or impacts on other indicators[1]? What do people mean by "China" here: CCP, Alibaba, Tencent, ...? If people mean these things, they should say those things, or otherwise say what they do mean. Otherwise I think people motte-and-bailey themselves (and others) into some really strange understandings. There's not some linear scoreboard which "US" and "China" have points on but people behave/talk like they actually think in those terms.

your claim that governments don't influence AI development [via semiconductor progress] is too strong

Thanks, this would indeed be too strong :) but it's not what I mean. (Also thank you for the example bullets below that, for me and for other readers.)

I don't mean to imply they have no influence on AI development and deployment[2]. What I meant by 'not currently meaningful players in AI development and deployment' was that, to date, governments have had little to no say in the course or nature of AI development. Rather, they have been mostly passive or unwitting passengers, with recent interventions (to date) comprising coarse economy-level lever-pulls, like your examples of regulation on chip production and sales. Can you think of a better compression of this than what I wrote? 'currently mainly passive except for coarse interventions at the economy-level'?

early demand for semiconductors was driven by the US government's military and space program

The key difference between e.g. space-race or nuclear/ICBM etc. and AI is that in those cases, governments were appropriately thought of as somewhat-coherently instigating, steering and directing, and could be described as being key players with a real competition between them. With AI, none of those things are (currently) true. So ideally we would use different language to describe the different situations (especially because the misleading use of language is inflammatory).

I get exercised about this overall issue because on one model, this sort of failure of imagination and the confusion it gives rise to is exactly what leads to escalation and conflict, which I sense you agree on. We do not want sloppy foregone-conclusion thinking leading to WWIII with AI and nukes.


  1. What indicators? Education, unemployment, privacy, health, productivity, democracy, inequality, ...? ↩︎

  2. Ironically for a piece on bringing clarity through nuance, I evidently wasn't clear enough about where I was drawing the boundaries in my initial post... ↩︎

Do people actually think that Google+OpenAI+Anthropic (for sake of argument) are the US? Do they think the US government/military can/will appropriate those staff/artefacts/resources at some point?

 

I'm pretty sure what most (educated) people think is they are part of the US (in the sense that they are "US entities", among other things), that they will pay taxes in the US, will hire more people in the US than China (at least relative to if they were Chinese entities), will create other economic and technological spillover effects in greater amount in the US than in China (similar to how the US's early lead on the internet did), will enhance the US's national glory and morale, will provide strategically valuable assets to the US and deny these assets to China (at least in a time of conflict), will more likely embody US culture and norms than Chinese culture and norms, and will be subject to US regulation much more than Chinese regulation.

Most people don't expect these companies will be nationalized (though that does remain a possibility, and presumably more so if they were Chinese companies than US companies, due to the differing economic and political systems), but there are plenty of other ways that people expect the companies to advantage their host country['s government, population, economy, etc].

Do people actually think that Google+OpenAI+Anthropic (for sake of argument) are the US? >Do they think the US government/military can/will appropriate those >staff/artefacts/resources at some point? Are they referring to integration of contemporary >ML/DS into the economy? The military? Or impacts on other indicators

Yes.  

In the end, all the answers to your questions are yes.

The critical thing to realize is until basically EOY 2022, AI didn't exist.  It was narrow and expensive and essentially non-general - a cool party trick but the cost to build a model for anything and get to useful performance levels was high.  Self driving cars were endlessly delayed, Recsys work but their techniques to correlate fields of user data with preferences are only a little better using neural networks than older cheaper methods, for most other purposes AI was just a tech demo.

You need to think in terms of "what does it means that AI works now and how are decisions going to be different".  With that said, governments won't nationalize AI companies until they develop a lot stronger models.

Imagine the Manhattan project never happened, but GE and a few other US companies kept tinkering with fission.  Eventually they would have build critical devices, and EOY 2022 is the "Chicago pile" moment - there's a nuclear reactor, and we can plot out the yield for a nuke, but the devices have not yet been built.

Around the time GE is building nuclear bombs for military demos, at some point the US government has to nationalize it all.  It's too dangerous.  

 

As for the rest of your post, i don't see how "non framing a competition as a competition" is very useful.  It's not the media.  We live on a finite planet with finite resources, and the only reason there are different countries is the most powerful winners have not found a big enough club to conquer everyone else.

You know nations used to be way smaller, right.  Why do you think they are so large now?  In each history someone found a way to depose all the other feudal kings and lords.

AGI may be that club, and whoever builds it fastest and bestest may in fact just be able to crush everyone.  Even if they can't, each superpower has to assume that they can.

Interesting. I'd love to know if you think the crux schema I outlined is indeed important? I mean this:

How quickly/totally/coherently could US gov/CCP capture AI talent/artefacts/compute within its jurisdiction and redirect them toward excludable destructive ends? Under what circumstances would they want/be able to do that?

Correct me at any point if I misinterpret: I read that, on the basis of answers to something a bit like these, you think an international competition/race is all but inevitable? Presumably that registers as terrifically dangerous for you such that mitigating it would be a high priority if tractable? But you deny the tractability of mitigating it so consider concerns like mine regarding clear use of language to be... wasteful? Distracting? Counterproductive?


Your alternative history with fission is helpful and thought-provoking - and plausible. I don't think it's the inevitable way things would play out, though. For example, if concerns about atmospheric ignition, nuclear winter, and other risks were raised in a climate of less international distrust it's at least plausible to me that coordination to avoid those risks could have been achieved. (Of course, with the benefit of hindsight we know that atmospheric ignition was not a risk, but we still don't know about nuclear winter.)

Are we in a climate of less international distrust than they? I think so, at least a little. Careless talk can inflame escalation, so this variable really matters not only as an input to our actions but an output.

You know nations used to be way smaller, right. Why do you think they are so large now?

I have a passable grasp of world history and prehistory (though I will probably always lament my lack of knowledge). Do you remember the international trading companies in the age of sail? The age of European empires? They're gone, now. Possible counterpoints to part of the worldview you're exposing.

We appreciate the feedback!

China has made several efforts to preserve their chip access, including smuggling, buying chips that are just under the legal limit of performance, and investing in their domestic chip industry.

I fully agree that this was an ambiguous use of “China.” We should have been more specific about which actors are taking which actions. I’ve updated the text to the following:

NVIDIA designed a new chip with performance just beneath the thresholds set by the export controls in order to legally sell the chip in China. Other chips have been smuggled into China in violation of US export controls. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has struggled to support domestic chip manufacturing plants, and has taken further steps to prevent American investors from investing in Chinese companies.

We’ve also cut the second sentence in this paragraph, as the paragraph remains comprehensible without it:

Modern AI systems are trained on advanced computer chips which are designed and fabricated by only a handful of companies in the world. The US and China have been competing for access to these chips for years. Last October, the Biden administration partnered with international allies to severely limit China’s access to leading AI chips.

More generally, we try to avoid zero-sum competitive mindsets on AI development. They can encourage racing towards more powerful AI systems, justify cutting corners on safety, and hinder efforts for international cooperation on AI governance. It’s important to discuss national AI policies which are often explicitly motivated by goals of competition without legitimizing or justifying zero-sum competitive mindsets which can undermine efforts to cooperate. While we will comment on the how the US and China are competing in AI, we avoid recommending "race with China."

This is an exemplary and welcome response: concise, full-throated, actioned. Respect, thank you Aidan.

Sincerely, I hope my feedback was all-considered good from your perspective. As I noted in this post, I felt my initial email was slightly unkind at one point, but I am overall glad I shared it - you appreciate my getting exercised about this, even over a few paragraphs!

It’s important to discuss national AI policies which are often explicitly motivated by goals of competition without legitimizing or justifying zero-sum competitive mindsets which can undermine efforts to cooperate.

Yes, and I repeat that CAIS newsletter has a good balance of nuance, correctness, helpfulness, reach. Hopefully your example here sets the tone for conversations in this space!

In the name of trying to make legible what I think is going on in the average non-expert's head about this, I'm going to say a bunch of things I know are likely to be mistaken, incomplete, or inadequately sophisticated. Please don't take these as endorsements that this thinking is correct, just that it's what I see when I inspect my instincts about this, and suspect other casual spectators might have the same ones.

It feels intuitive that Google and OpenAI and Anthropic etc. are more likely to co-operate with each other than any of them are to co-operate with Alibaba or Tencent. This is for a mixture of practical reasons (because they're governed by the same or similar courts of law, e.g. contracts between them seem likely to be cheaper and more reliable, there's fewer language barriers) and cultural reasons (they're run by people who grew up in a similar environment, told similar things about what kind of person they ought to be, their employees are more likely to socialize with each other, that sort of thing). That said, it does also seem likely that Google stands to gain more from the failure of Microsoft than from the failure of Alibaba: maybe we can think of the US companies as simultaneously closer friends and closer enemies with each other?

I do also imagine that both the US and Chinese governments have the potential to step in when corporations in their country get too powerful, and in particular (again, not coming from a place of expertise on this, just a casual impression) the Chinese government appears more willing and able to seize or direct privately-owned resources in the name of the national interest, e.g. I'm thinking of when they kind of told a hundred-billion dollar industry to stop existing.

I think there's also a mostly-psychological factor at play where if I were a US citizen, then I'd have a share in US governance as a member of the electorate, and while I might not have a share in US corporate governance, well, at least there is a board of directors that's nominally accountable to shareholders, many ordinary people could be shareholders, or if the thing is privately owned, at least there is some pressure from the government, so indirect accountability to me. I can feel like my interests have a stake, a representation, though of course my individual share is so small that its value in anything other than a symbolic sense is questionable. Meanwhile, I feel like I have essentially zero effective influence over Chinese government or corporations; while this is simplifying some realities in both directions, understood psychologically or symbolically the difference is there. This, I suspect, leads to people thinking of all US corporations as essentially amenable to reason or at least coercion, while thinking of Chinese corporations as having no obligation to listen to them at all, even in aggregate.

All this to say that I don't think aggregating US corporate power and Chinese corporate power has no basis in reason or reality; but mostly I say this in the belief that we can and should undo that aggregation more, but understanding why people do it and where it comes from might be useful for that purpose.

(Prefaced with the understanding that your comment is to some extent devil's advocating and this response may be too)

both the US and Chinese governments have the potential to step in when corporations in their country get too powerful

What is 'step in'? I think when people are describing things in aggregated national terms without nuance, they're implicitly imagining govts either already directing, or soon/inevitably appropriating and directing (perhaps to aggressive national interest plays). But govts could just as readily regulate and provide guidance on underprovisioned dimensions (like safety and existential risk mitigation). Or they could in fact be powerless, or remain basically passive until too late, or... (all live possibilities to me).

In these alternative cases, the kind of language and thinking I'm highlighting in the post seems like a sort of nonsense to me - like it doesn't really parse unless you tacitly assume some foregone conclusions.

Thanks Ben!

Please don't take these as endorsements that this thinking is correct, just that it's what I see when I inspect my instincts about this

Appreciated.

These psychological (and real) factors seem very plausible to me for explaining why mistakes in thinking and communication are made.

maybe we can think of the US companies as simultaneously closer friends and closer enemies with each other?

Mhm, this seems less lossy as a hypothetical model. Even if they were only 'closer friends', though, I don't think it's at all clearcut enough for it to be appropriate to glom them (and with the govt!) when thinking about strategy. And the more so when tempered by 'closer enemies'. As in, I expect anyone doing that to systematically be (harmfully) wrong in their thinking and writing.


I understand what you're gesturing at regarding anticipation that US actors might associate more with other US than with Chinese actors. I don't know what to think here but it seems far from set in stone.

Some personal anecdata. I worked in a growing internet company for some years. One of the big talking points was doing business in China, which involved making deals with Chinese entities. I wasn't directly involved but I want to say it was... somewhat hard but not prohibitive? We ended up with offices in Shanghai, some employees there, and some folks who travelled back and forth sometimes.[1] I tentatively think we did more business with China-based entities than with US-based market-competitors. I confidently know we did more business with non-US-based entities than with US-based market-competitors.

Meanwhile and less anecdotally, the stories about smuggling and rules-lawyering sales under the US govt's limit are literally examples of US- and China- based actors colluding! It's beyond sloppy to summarise that by drawing boundaries around 'US' and 'China'.

I could of course find examples which reinforce the 'intra-bloc harmony' hypothesis. Point is that it seems far from settled, so resting on implicit assumptions here will predictably lead to errors.


  1. As a tongue-in-cheek aside, shockingly, Chinese colleagues I've had in industry and academia are not weird aliens with dangerous values (at least not more than usual). Anyone who reasons on bases like these has basically failed (in a very human and understandable way) to reason at all, as far as I'm concerned. Most of the weird aliens with dangerous values I've met have been Americans and Brits! (There is obviously an egregious sampling bias.) Reasoning on the basis that others will reason like this is entirely valid, unfortunately. ↩︎

Have you done a lot of US-China or have any kind of IR background? Lots of people recommend starting out with reading the first couple chapters of Mearsheimer's Tragedy of Great Power Politics in order to get a sense of how things work at the macro scale, I think that the first two chapters of Thomas Schelling's Arms and Influence are neat but it's pretty old.

I don't know if you intended it this way, but I read this comment as saying "the author of this post is missing some fairly basic things about how IR works, as covered by introductory books about it". If so, I'd be interested in hearing you say more about what you think is being missed.

Agreed.

I'm not really the right kind of person to be commenting on this here, I thought I might end up being the only person responding (this was the first comment) so I left a comment that seemed significantly better than nothing. The helpfulness of my comment was substantially outclassed by subsequent comments.

I'm curious who you've seen recommending starting with Mearsheimer? That seems like an unbalanced starting point to me.

I'd personally recommend a textbook, like an older edition of World Politics.

Agreed on the choice of an older edition.

Mearsheimer still makes for a good base, especially for someone whose main exposure to international affairs and military/government was from reading the news and high school civics class (e.g. constitutional checks and balances), which unfortunately is the level that many non-international focused regulation-specialists in EA are still at. I don't think this speaks badly to their skill level and certainly not their potential, just that they start out in a really unfair circumstance, with a head filled with a bunch of bullshit that just needs to be thrown out as cleanly as possible, and Mearsheimer is a great way to do that. I don't remember much about the benefits from reading my first IR textbook, but I remember feeling extremely confused and disoriented, whereas Mearsheimer left me with a clear model that I could tweak and criticize and add gears to.

Mearsheimer starts you out with "yes, this is how it is, and the stuff you grew up with and still see in the news is total bullshit and you're going to have a bad time trying to build a solid model off of that" and people can't do well with modelling international affairs unless they're prepared to bite the bullet and do that at some point. Mearsheimer's model itself is of course insufficient on its own, but its empirical base and predictiveness are strong, and it sets up the student to add in their own gears (a big one being information warfare). That's really important for being able to forecast how slow takeoff will disrupt and transform the system in historically unprecedented ways.

I don't think this speaks badly to their skill level and certainly not their potential, just that they start out in a really unfair circumstance, with a head filled with a bunch of bullshit that just needs to be thrown out as cleanly as possible, and Mearsheimer is a great way to do that. 

I'm out of the loop; what's the bullshit from high school civics class that needs to be thrown out of my head, and why is Mearsheimer unbalanced but also a good starting point?