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The future will be artificial & full of intelligence
Putin instructs Herman Gref to ensure Russia's AI-driven future
Herman Gref, Russia’s favorite German technocrat, was summoned to the Kremlin on Wednesday as part of a summit hosted by “Russia—the Land of Opportunities”, an organization that aims to “ensure personal and professional self-realization of citizens of all ages.”
Herr Gref is a member of the group’s supervisory board, for reasons that should be completely obvious.
Sitting at a big table in Catherine Hall, President Vladimir Putin chatted pleasantly with the Sber CEO about “the future”:
Vladimir Putin: Herman Oskarovich, will artificial intelligence replace you as chairman of Sberbank?
Herman Gref: Vladimir Vladimirovich, I hope not in my lifetime, but everything is moving towards this.
Vladimir Putin: You see, progress is impossible with such people, everything will slow down now … We recently held an event [on AI]. Indeed, Sberbank has been doing a lot of work on this for a long time, for many years, right? How many? It’s been five years, at least.
Herman Gref: We have been running the AI Journey for five years. In general, for about 12-13 years we have been investing a lot.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, we have invested a lot. Can you name this number? Tell.
Herman Gref: Every year we invest about a billion dollars in artificial intelligence technologies. We get back about three billion dollars a year from artificial intelligence.
Vladimir Putin: The scale is serious, so all efforts aimed at achieving specific goals in this area should, of course, be supported … This is the future …. this is the absolute future. In terms of importance for the country—for any country—this is no less significant than the nuclear or rocket project of the Soviet Union, which was carried out in the mid-1940s and 1950s. So, Herman Oskarovich, please pay attention, okay?
The “recent event” that Putin referred to was Sber’s AI Journey conference, which was held in November. Russia’s president told attendees at Sber’s autumn powwow:
Our next goal on the horizon of the current decade is to ensure broader introduction of artificial intelligence. It should penetrate all sectors of the economy, the social services, and the public administration system.
Mr. Gref and I spoke about this when he was still working in the Government, and it was Mr. Gref’s pet project—he never stopped talking about the need to transition to a new level of administration in general, as a whole.
There’s not much ambiguity here: Putin believes AI is the future, and Herman Gref’s Sber (“not a bank, but a whole universe of services”) should shepherd the Russian flock towards a brighter, AI-driven tomorrow.
Your correspondent is a true pragmatist, and a hardened realist: How could anyone expect Russia not to develop AI? As this blog has pointed out before, there is no stopping technology, unless you are Amish, or live in 16th-century Japan, when the country’s warlords briefly banned peasant soldiers from using firearms because they were killing too many noble samurai. You do not live in 16th-century Japan.
The problem is that Herman Gref cannot be trusted under any circumstances, and the fact that Putin has apparently knighted him Russia’s AI Baron is slightly worrisome.
I’m sure AI can be used to do many useful things, like create neural networks that can deliver tacos to your door in under 15 minutes. But the potential for abuse is very great, and if Russia’s AI program is being steered by Gref, right out of the gate, that’s a huge red flag. That’s just my opinion, though.
There’s another issue here and it would be wrong not to address it: Putin is really into this digitalization stuff. He just is and that’s a fact.
For example, in November 2021 he proposed creating a unified database for “[biometric] data used in financial transactions”. For safety, security, and convenience, of course.
Surprise: A year later, Putin signed the for-profit, only-partially-controlled-by-the-Russian-government Unified Biometric System into law. Sber is a major player in Russia’s transition to biometrics, by the way.
Probably some of you are sick of reading about Gref and his deranged visions for Russia. But if you want to understand where Russia is headed, you gotta watch this weirdo like a hawk. He has a technocratic finger in every pelmeni, with the full approval of the Kremlin.
That’s not good. That’s bad.
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