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Geneva hosts U.S.-China talks on security and risks of AI systems

Both sides called the talks 'constructive' despite tensions and different approaches to calls for global AI governance.

Chinese and American officials meet in Geneva to discuss AI's future.
Chinese and American officials meet in Geneva to discuss AI. (AN/People's Daily/China MFA)

GENEVA (AN) — The United States and China each described their first high-level talks on artificial intelligence as "constructive," despite intense competition and broad differences over calls for a new global AI regulator.

The United States urged the two powers to "maintain open lines of communication on AI risk and safety as an important part of responsibly managing competition," U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said on Wednesday.

Watson said the U.S. and China held "a candid and constructive discussion" about their different approaches to AI safety and risk management at the meeting in Geneva on Tuesday, with U.S. officials insisting AI must be used for sustainable development to benefit developing and wealthy countries alike. The talks are intended to prevent unintended wars and catastrophes.

"The United States underscored the importance of ensuring AI systems are safe, secure, and trustworthy in order to realize these benefits of AI, and of continuing to build global consensus on that basis," she said, adding the U.S. "also raised concerns over the misuse of AI" including by Chiuna.

State broadcaster China Global Television Network reported on Wednesday that both sides recognized opportunities and risks. "The two sides had an in-depth, professional and constructive exchange of views on the risks of AI, global governance and other issues of concern," said CGTN, one of the state media outlets tightly controlled by China's ruling Communist Party.

"China supports strengthening global governance of AI," it said, "advocates the role of the United Nations as the main channel, and stands ready to strengthen communication and coordination with the international community, including the U.S., to form a global framework and standards for AI governance with broad consensus."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin also said the two powers had met in Geneva "to exchange views on the risks and global governance as well as other issues of respective concern on AI."

It was the first such meeting to be held as part of an intergovernmental dialogue on AI that was agreed upon during a summit between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco six months ago.

That summit came a month after the U.S. announced new export controls meant to slow China’s development of advanced AI technologies, particularly those used by its military. The U.S. is concerned about AI dual-use technology for next-generation military systems and civilian uses.

As the European hub of the United Nations and other international organizations, Geneva hosts the International Telecommunication Union, which will hold its annual AI for Good Global Summit at the end of May.

The U.S.-China dominance of information and communication technologies is reflected at ITU, which is headed by Doreen Bodgan-Martin, an American who was publicly backed by Biden for the job of secretary-general. In 2023, she replaced Houlin Zhao, a former engineer in the Design Institute of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications of China, who headed ITU from 2015 to 2022.

The budding AI arms race between the U.S. and China has intensified over design AI hardware and software, and the raw materials needed to power AI systems. Silicon Valley has taken the lead in generative AI systems such as large language models, or LLMs, that feed on large amounts of data.

The U.S. delegation was led by Tarun Chhabra, a special assistant to the U.S. president and senior director for technology and national security, and Seth Center, a U.S. State Department acting special envoy for critical and emerging technologies. China's delegation was led by officials from the foreign ministry and central economic planning agency.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March that his nation's main focus in talks on global AI governance is to ensure three principles are met. AI should be a force for good and AI's development should benefit all of humanity in conformity with international law, he said, and it should be used safely, always under human control, and to ensure fairness.

"An international AI governance institution should be set up under the U.N. framework and all countries should be able to participate on equal terms in the process of AI development and share in its benefits fairly," China's foreign ministry said.

The Biden administration, however, has released a confidential paper to foreign governments opposing the U.N.'s aspiration of creating new global institutions to govern AI, Devex reported.

In April, Biden also signed into law a measure seeking to force TikTok to be banned or sold to a non-Chinese buyer. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has been working on a road map for regulating AI that would call for spending billions of dollars on R&D and assessing AI's impacts.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres created a high-level advisory body on AI and last year endorsed the idea of creating a new international AI watchdog agency as recommended by leading AI scientists and experts. In March, the U.N. General Assembly approved its first resolution on AI aimed at keeping AI under control and ensuring it benefits all of humanity.

The non-binding resolution – proposed by the U.S. and co-sponsored by China – won unanimous backing. It calls on all 193 U.N. member nations to monitor AI for risks, while protecting human rights and personal data.

"New general-purpose and specialized machine-learning models will have a deep and uncharted impact on the United States and China in the coming years. Both countries are at the forefront of developing these tools and being impacted by them," U.S. research scholars and analysts Graham Webster and Ryan Hass wrote in anticipation of the Geneva talks.

"The present opportunity does not erase zero-sum, or even lose-lose, possibilities as the two countries navigate competition and uncertainty," they wrote. "However, focusing on advancing practical ideas for governance and risk reduction will maximize the odds of seizing the opportunity that both leaders have opened. The window for progress will not remain open forever, though, so early wins will be essential to underscoring the value of investing in this dialogue for both sides."

This story has been updated with additional details.