Perspective: China syndromeGood for Google, Bad for America

Published 12 August 2019

Google’s decision to start an AI lab in China while ending an AI contract with the Pentagon, is disturbing. Goggle may argue that it operates in a world where “AI and its benefits have no borders,” but Peter Thiel argues that this way of thinking works only inside Google’s cosseted Northern California campus, quite distinct from the world outside. “The Silicon Valley attitude sometimes called ‘cosmopolitanism’ is probably better understood as an extreme strain of parochialism, that of fortunate enclaves isolated from the problems of other places — and incurious about them,” he writes. In the 1950s, the cliché was that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Google makes no such claim for itself; “it would be too obviously false,” Thiel writes. Instead, Google talks about what is good for the world – but “by now we should understand that the real point of talking about what’s good for the world is to evade responsibility for the good of the country.”

AI is a military technology. Machine learning tools have civilian uses, too, so AI is a good example of a “dual use” technology.

Peter Thiel writes in the New York Times that AI’s military power is “the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China in 2017 while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking.”

Thiel says that since 1971, the American elite’s Cold War attitude toward China’s leaders has been one of warm indulgence. In the 1970s and 1980s, that meant supporting China against a greater adversary, the Soviet Union. “What is extremely strange is that this policy of indulgence continued and even deepened after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991,” he writes.

A few years after the Cold War ended, American leaders started treating China the way they had treated West Germany and Japan. “We tolerated punishing trade deficits in the 1970s and 1980s to support those two allies, and we had strategic reasons to do it. As for building up China in the 1990s and 2000s, America’s generosity was supposed to somehow lead to China’s liberalization. In reality, it led to the transfer of our industrial base to a foreign rival.”

Google may use the rhetoric of “borderless” benefits to justify working with China, but “This way of thinking works only inside Google’s cosseted Northern California campus, quite distinct from the world outside. The Silicon Valley attitude sometimes called “cosmopolitanism” is probably better understood as an extreme strain of parochialism, that of fortunate enclaves isolated from the problems of other places — and incurious about them,” Thiel writes.

“The difference between our post-1971 era of globalization and the post-1945 midcentury boom is a breakdown in the relationship between the parts and the whole: An archipelago of inward-looking, parochial places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley have done exceedingly well for themselves while their fellow citizens have been left behind in a stagnant economy,” Thiel writes.

He concludes:

In the 1950s, the cliché was that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Google makes no such claim for itself; it would be too obviously false. Instead, Google says it is “committed to significantly improving the lives of as many people as possible”— a standard so vague as to defy any challenge.

By now we should understand that the real point of talking about what’s good for the world is to evade responsibility for the good of the country.