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Huawei boss plays Pollyanna in Davos

In a live discussion at the World Economic Forum, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei insisted that his company is barely affected by US sanctions.

The broader theme of the discussion, which also featured historian Yuval Noah Harari and was moderated by journalist Zanny Minton Beddoes, was: a future shaped by a technology arms race. Harari is known for his concerns about the direction humanity is headed in, especially when it comes to emerging technologies. While he seems to consider a Terminator-like Armageddon at the hands of autonomous weapons systems possible, he’s more immediately concerned with the prospect of human beings being hacked by big data, AI and biometrics, such that we become increasingly manipulated by shady, distant forces.

Ren clearly decided to position himself in opposition to this bleak outlook, as you would expect of someone who makes his living from the tech business, but he did so with such relentlessly blind optimism that most of his comments came over as Pollyannaish at best. He insisted technological developments always benefit mankind, even contrasting nuclear weapons with nuclear energy and radiotherapy to infer a net positive, especially since nobody has been nuked for a while.

Even when asked if the US is right to feel it’s in a technological arms race with China, he dodged the question by saying China doesn’t have the human and technological capability to dominate in AI. Having said that he notes the US is uncomfortable when it’s not number one in any field. He also insisted that Harari’s fears are overblown.

When Ren was asked if he thinks the world is headed towards splitting into two distinct technological ecosystems he said the following. “Huawei used to be an admirer of the US. Huawei is successful today largely because it learned from the US for most of our management system. Since day one we hired dozens of American consulting firms, teaching us how to manage our business operations… The US should feel proud of it… From that perspective I think the US should not be concerned about Huawei and its position in the world.

“Regarding the entity list, Huawei was added to the list last year and it didn’t hurt us much. We basically withstood the challenges. This year the US might further escalate their campaign against Huawei, but I feel the impact on Huawei’s business would not be very significant. But whether the world will be split into two systems, I don’t think so, because science is about truth and there’s only one truth. Any scientist who discovers the truth would make it known to all the people around the world. At a very deep lying layer the whole world is united, it’s all linked.”

The bit about how the US should feel proud of Huawei because of how much it influenced it was some quality trolling, but on the whole it’s not obvious what Ren hoped to achieve from this performance. Everybody knows R&D is a key component of geopolitical competition and that technological advances are both jealously guarded and often used to military advantage. Ren doesn’t do himself or his company any favours by treating his audience as idiots.

You can watch the full discussion here.

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