Before 1990, everybody knew who the enemy was. Today, there is a growing sense of confrontation in a confused world, in which some new power players want to insert their meddlesome influence. Humanity produces two things in abundance: carbon dioxide and ideas. Both defy all attempts at control. Carbon dioxide heats up the world, in Australia temperatures reached 49° Celsius on December 27, and ideas create new technologies and social media. Both change our view on the world and the others.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is supposed to be controlled by the makers of the algorithms directing it. Initially, AI mimicked the human one, but it develops now also unknowable forms of intelligence by upgrading its own algorithms. Combined with big data, its bio-medical use will create soon enhanced humans, outperforming most of us. Who will control this and how will their relationship be with normal people? The physiology of our moods and inclinations is no longer a secret. Most of human characteristics are for 50% determined by an aggregate of a multitude of genes. Crispr, a DNA-editing tool invented six years ago, allows to replace harmful genes by better ones. But, the search for single-gene determinants is replaced now by the exploration of ‘polygenetic scores for individuals’. These combinations, involving thousands of genetic variations par person, account for 50% of the psychological differences between people, their emotional or intellectual inclinations. How will we preserve our individual uniqueness, having to compete with machines?

Genetic engineering is soon likely to create new species of self-designing superhumans with enhanced memory, disease resistance and longevity. This raises the issue of unimproved humans and the left-behind, unable to compete.

A global world needs universal rules and transnational agreements. EU countries have ceased to be nation states, becoming member states. EU institutions, distanced from domestic politics and voters loyalties, became dominant institutions. This super cession of nation states by an European order represents progress, but, as in all big changes, there are some pitfalls. Old identities have faded in the turmoil and insecurity of a globalized post-industrial society. Our feeling of ‘identity’ is linked to our memory. The debate between ‘Leitkultur’ and ‘Transnational History’ is all about political power and hyper-individualism. Across the democratic part of the world, governments seem to become more self-interested, losing respect and legitimacy. Each weekend, the ‘Gillets-Jaunes’, a non-structured people’s movement, wreck the French economy negating the democratic elected government. Karl Marx observed: “People make history, but not in the circumstances they choose.” Anarchy in the streets cannot be a good solution. Obsessed by urgency and immediate satisfaction, boosted by the social media, people want it all and now. Solutions don’t fall from heaven.

Nowadays, social media make it hard for politicians to debate any substantive issue, let alone the capacity to envisage future events and awareness of their global consequences and long-term risks. Short-termism and self-interest prevail on all national levels. The Brexit vote wants to restore power to the traditional national institutions. Different attitudes towards budgetary discipline divide northern and southern EU countries; immigration, multiculturality and social politics oppose a number of former East and Central European nations against the Old Europe. The resilience of tribal aspects and authoritarian impulses of human nature as well as the absence of common European values and tactics, endanger the humanist narrative of the Enlightenment’s ideals.

Neuroscience demonstrates that we are all biased while considering ourselves as objective. Fake news, misinformation, confirmation bias and suggestion influence our unconscious mind heavily. Even when we know an information is fake, it still colors our memories, as Elisabeth Loftus advanced. She challenged the physiological possibility and accountability of ‘repressed memories1’, since there is no neurological proof for it. The University of California transfers already memories from one sea-snail to another (Aplysia California) and provides insight in the physical structure of memories, RNA activity inside cells and synapses. Memory is not anymore a closed box. How do we handle this insight before the courts of justice in times of the Me Too-discussions, when scores of ladies suddenly reveal thirty-year-long hidden memories?

Human ingenuity is astonishing. Self-learning machines are designed to solve highly complex problems and to develop ‘machine intuition and imagination’. Demis Hassabis engineered stimulation of human neural clusters in neural-net machines. In 2014, he sold his start-up Deep Mind Company (London) to Google for $600m. Will machines find new solutions to the world’s environmental, economic and societal problems? His new ‘Alpha-GO machine’ beat in 2016 the best Chinese GO players in the world. Since thirty years, the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in the old ‘Steel city’ Pittsburg and the Boston Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are two of the most advanced research centers on AI, the new disruptive force. Computing power, data and mobile networks combined with advanced pattern recognition allow autonomous machine learning. Soon computers will reason with humans while detecting their emotions. But, robots learn on the basis of their earlier biases and experiences. It will be hard to avoid discrimination. They will be able to determine their own selective criteria and upgrade their algorithms in function of the goals they determine. Will we have to delegate our decisions about our uncertain future to machines and ultimately let them take over, reducing human responsibility? Can it be controlled at all? Will the machines’ goals be aligned with ours? Moreover, in this ever more digital world, the cyber-attack threat is growing at the same pace of our connectivity.

The self-upgrading intelligence of machines will change human culture in an unforeseeable manner. What will be the new balance of power in a digital world in which the USA, China, Russia, Europe and soon other Asian nations compete for their share of influence. Each of them, lacking insight in what the others think and want. The world is divided, not by ideology or production methods, but by forms of governance. The Occident favors Human Rights, the other parts of the world rarely do. The utopian vision of the ‘left behind: gillets jaunes’ threatens the principle of democracy by delegation. China, Russia, Turkey and other countries ignore treaties, conventions and the integrity of the borders of neighboring countries. If there are no consequences linked to this non-respect of rules, the world balance of power is in jeopardize. To avoid bipolarization, Europe and Russia, nevertheless the sanctions imposed by the Ukrainian crisis, continue to do business with each other. Only Denmark reacted lately by blocking the Gazprom’s Nordstream2 gazoduc-construction between Russia and Germany. Since the repeated Russian incursions in its aerospace, the installation of Russian Iskander missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the Ukrainian situation, Denmark is worried about its national security. Newly, Russia, feeling compelled to explain at home the imposition of sanctions and the vilification of Russia in the international media, flexed its military might with the test of the new Avangard hypersonic missile. No diplomacy and communication but arm-wrestling is the slogan between the superpowers.

Moscow, Teheran and Beijing regard the democracy-promoting West as an adversary, menacing their nomenclature and leadership structures. China’s national wealth is tied up in American Treasury bonds, so it tries to change the international order, but can’t severe its links with America, still dominating the world economy. All countries want Chinese investments but fear its growing imperialism. In his new year’s address of January 2, president Xi Jinping threatens with military action against Taiwan, if it does not accept a similar system as Hong Kong, dominated by the Chinese Communist party. A country wanting that international rules are respected has to respect them also. A new world order cannot be based on 3 or 4 superpowers, dividing the rest of the world in their respective power spheres. Europe could be a giant, but there is for the moment nobody to answer the phone in its name who will be considered as a sufficient deterrent of abusive external power. It has, nevertheless, to build partnerships with the other power blocks, based on mutual respect.

Being pessimist is not conceptually useful! In the last twenty years, science and technology created a better world, even for the world’s most poor. It brought more than a billion people out of extreme poverty in recent decades. But there is no global world organization to regulate in a moral way technological innovation and its effects on the masses. Societal choices have to be guided by values, technology and science cannot provide. It makes people anxious and political parties fractious, fearing to be replaced by populist mass movements. We learned little from recent History. Eighty years ago, the Holocaust and eugenics warned us. Science and ideas can be misused. A charismatic leader does not always embody wisdom and virtue. Can science and innovation in democratic nations keep living standards rising for everybody while restraining consumption of natural resources and pollution? And at what price? It is unclear who will pay the bill. The immediacy of social media does not tackle the causes, only the effects. Temperature is globally rising, this brings more warm moisture in the air, higher sea-levels and therefore bigger storms and hurricanes. Simple minds blame the weather instead of the global warming.

When forest fires of an unseen intensity rage through California, president Trump preferred to blame the organization of the fire brigades than the human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, heading for disaster. It made him not less popular by the American ‘rednecks’, greatly embittered by the inequality of chances and their economic misfortune. He cleverly exploits the fears and anxieties from the left-behind by the evolution of new technologies and the globalization. But these fears are real. A great number of the world’s population does not profit from this new global transformation of the economy. It incites people with violent passions, as we saw in the recent French uproar on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Even competent politicians, appearing to be out of touch, are banished in a nanosecond on social media. The next battle is not about principles, it’s about what you believe in and what you are fighting for. A growing majority everywhere wants a better life with less effort.

Another threat is the great vulnerability of our interconnected world to error, terror and hacking by fanatic individuals, criminal organizations and rogue states. Nobody dears to discuss the ‘population clock’, the ever expanding world’s demography, and birth control. Demographics in Africa could push it up to 13 bn in 2050, when half of the world’s children will live there. In 2050, Nigeria will count as many inhabitants as the USA: 400 million. How will the energy, food and water supply keep pace? In their homelands, migrants have in most cases ethnic conflicts, a corrupt government, no clean water, no adequate education or healthcare. They will move in massive numbers when global temperature will rise and water will become a scarce commodity.

As one loophole closes in the USA for art collectors, another opens. One year after Congress ended a provision favouring them, a new tax benefit has emerged under the Trump administration’s tax plan, the so-called “Opportunity Zones,” which came into effect in December 2017. These zones are economically distressed communities where new investments may be eligible for preferred tax treatment. The regulations allow for tax deferment on proceeds from the sale of an appreciated asset, such as a Picasso painting, if the seller uses the money to invest in an ‘Opportunity Zone’.

Forty years ago, reforms (December 18, 1978) initiated by the pragmatic economically-liberalizing Deng Xiaoping propelled China into modernity and ended the Maoist cultural revolution that slaughtered 45 million Chinese. It’s present territorial-economic ambitions and actions, while neglecting human and intellectual property rights and interfering in other countries domestic policies over the recent decade, need some profound analysis. China erased the humiliation by the West since the Opium war (1839-1942). The Obama administration lost its influence in the Chinese sea irreversibly by its hesitations. Does somebody really think the Chinese Dragon can be put back in the bottle? The American president is a top-class reality avoider when it suits him, but at other moments he means it. Before president Trump’s tweets, the USA and Europe did not understand that China, aiming to be a superpower, was never a strategic partner but a competitive rival, aimed at reshaping the world’s power balance and challenging the US-led international order. The latter is based on human rights, freedom and democracy. The West already lost that bet. President Trump said: “When I came, we were heading to a direction that was going to allow China to be bigger than us in a very short period of time. That’s not going to happen anymore”. But, will his emerging strategy to confront China and to win the trade war succeed? The outlines of this clash are slowly unfolding.

China is already the top trading partner of all major Asian countries. Chinese investments, technology and military expansion threaten cleverly, in a subliminal way, the vulnerabilities of national security in many countries. Especially in Japan, Australia, Asia and Africa it will be a difficult to choose between an economic relationship with China or the USA. They have to keep a security relationship with the latter, unable to challenge themselves the new super-powers. The spectacular arrest of the daughter of the Huawei telecom founder in Canada and the withdrawal of its technology in the US illustrate clearly that the next battle in this new cold war is about cyber and AI technology. Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu confront Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple. The US still dominates that field. It attracts the most brilliant brains from elsewhere. Its economy is healthy (growing at an annual rate of 3%, unemployment rate at 3,7%, inflation at 1,8%), although slowing down a bit lately. The Chinese is slowing and debt-ridden, staggering under the weight of tariffs president Trump has imposed on its exports (down 4,4% in December). The loans of Chinese companies, often only backed with property collateral, are now up to 164% of the GDP; in the US it is 45%. A real estate bubble is looming: 20% of the Chinese apartments are unoccupied. State banks make loans to state-owned zombie companies, unable to repay them. The government favors state owned enterprises over more competitive private ones. Local governments have $5,8 trillion of debt. In November, China’s tax revenues on consumption fell by 71% from the same month the previous year. Since 2015, the Chinese Communist Party (PCC) is again in total control, now more than ever thanks to advanced facial recognition technology (Yitu, Shangai) recognizing in a second a face in a crowd of a million. This and the surveillance of social media led to the reel time control of the Chinese population. Policemen, equipped with facial recognition spectacles linked to a database, scrutinize the streets to detect ‘un-socially integrated’ individuals. Local entrepreneurs have to serve the Red State Capitalism or they are out. Western bling-bling is also out of fashion.

Does China respects human rights and Intellectual Property? Well, it is supposed to. Christians (60 million) and many others religions are not free to practice their traditions. The Dalai Lama is seen as a dangerous politic troubleshooter. Uighurs are silenced, re-educated and mass detained. All minorities which don’t push the Communist party line are harshly re-educated. Foreign companies are required to have Chinese partners to whom they have to turn over all Intellectual property, if it was not already stolen before. Artists are free as long as they follow the unwritten laws of Chinese censorship, as the Chinese attitude towards artist Ai Wei Wei confirms. At the International Photo Festival of Lianzhou, a town of 500.000 inhabitants situated a three hour drive from Canton, 10% of the 2000 exhibited photos disappeared after censorship by the local Communist party members. As well foreign as Chinese photographers suffered the destruction of their work, without understanding what was allowed and what not. Even the original photo by the German Olivier Sieber, reproduced on the poster announcing the exhibition on walls everywhere, was censured, not the poster. The director of the festival, Mme Duan Yuting, confirms: “Here, we have a great liberty of expression2”, and everybody smiles. The exhibition started December 1 and ends on January 3, 2019. Two hundred photos were eliminated in 69 exhibitions on 3 sites. Censors pass regularly. Four artists disappeared. They will probably resurface if they are lucky within a few months. But only after having publicly confessed their crimes against the communist dictatorship, as happened to some kidnapped Hong Kong book editors. Official intolerance to all expressions of independent thought are hardening. All Chinese are under cyber-surveillance.

China is fighting a defensive battle. To face the consequences of its struggling economy, president Xi Jinping and the PCC need an trade agreement with the US, but president-for-life Xi Jinping is a smart GO player. Neither can be seen as surrendering for their home public. Nevertheless, I bet on the US, a compromise will be reached, forcing China to abandon decades of unfair trade practices. Thanks to the rampaging of president Trump, doing what he announced in his campaign at everybody’s great surprise, a tame EU and other countries will benefit from a fairer trading regime with China, even if they don’t like the American president’s style and attitude. The last decade, the world economy crawled away from the crisis by relentless money printing and Quantitative Easing (QE). Now, the US Federal Reserve and central banks made the first step into the opposite direction, unwinding the QE. Debt-ridden states will suffer more.

There is an urgent need for great statesmanship. A brutal worldwide territorial power struggle is unfolding worldwide, without respect for signed treaties and the given word. Iran remains the major sponsor of destabilization in the Middle East. Russia challenges now the Western hegemony. It upgraded a lot its military capacity but economically it is doing less well. Culturally it is close to Europe, but it suffers from the imposed sanctions. The Russian attitude towards Ukraine is unacceptable, as is the Chinese military expansion in the Chinese sea. But, the Russian president is accustomed that the EU just barks and will not bite. Georgia and Ukraine found this out at their own expense lately. President Trump declares that the USA will not anymore be the world’s policeman and will redraw his troops from Syria, leaving the courageous Kurds alone against the oncoming Turkish-Syrian attack. Only good connections with Moscow can save the Kurds from disaster. Europe, courageously, will not take part and will have to redraw also its troops. It will have to reinvent itself and to define clear common goals. The successor of the president of the EU commission Claude Juncker, will have to convince the old European axe France-Benelux-Germany, the Southern-, Central- and East-EU countries to look in the same direction. The Brexit will not help much the European economy but the outcome for the United Kingdom will be far worse and even disastrous in case of a No-deal. Britain was islanded 450.000 years ago when glacial melting water burst over the white chalk ridges of Dover. It will have to face the consequences of his choice, as soon as it knows what it really wants.

Since the Ancient Greek history and the Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta, all wars were based on rising fears and misperceptions of a neighbor’s economic expansion and military power. Seldom, as many geostrategic aspects moved in opposite directions as today. Traditionally, when dictatorships get into economic difficulties, they find a military escapade by aggressing a neighbor. We can only hope for a better understanding between the big superpowers in our global world and for more respect of the right on freedom of expression and privacy. A miscalculation of one another’s intentions between superpowers could precipitate a confrontation, spiralling out of control. General policy-uncertainty prevails in this changing world.

A happy New Year 2019, peace and prosperity for all.

Univ. Prof. Dr. Jan De Maere
University of Art&Design, Cluj-Napoca

1 E. Loftus, The reality of Repressed Memories, 1993.
2 M. Guerrin, En Chine, la censure à l’œuvre, Le Monde Décembre 14, 2018, p 19.