Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Beginnings of a Painful World

My friend told me: “Don’t waste your time chasing after news of politicians or booking interviews with them. Their role in forging the future of the world is over. Governments, arsenals and fleets no longer have the final say. The future of the world is now being shaped in laboratories.”

“Coups and seizures of presidential palaces and state radios are now worthless. The deciding battle is now being run in the halls of technology and successive scientific revolutions,” he added.

“Artificial intelligence will change everything, from development, to health, education, the economy and services. Whoever fails to join this new major shift will be stuck in the past, regardless of how many missiles or weapons of mass destruction they possess.”

“Remember that the smartphone created a monumental shift in the lives of individuals and societies. It is now but a blip in what AI will do. Don’t be fooled by painful scenes and bad news. This labor is natural, and the world will become a better place,” he went on to say.

I like to be optimistic, and I like optimists, without whom people would be left to their despair and disappointments. Experience has shown that technology has provided much more than what the people dreamed of in several fields, including the media. It expanded horizons and overcame borders, facilitating the flow of ideas and images. It allowed journalists and authors to access far-off places.

However, journalism sometimes forces you to question the direction the world is going, especially when you read about armies that are investing AI in developing their combat abilities. These abilities will later be put at the disposal of militias, roaming armies and organized crime gangs.

I listened eagerly to the dreams of my friend and went back to work. I came across an article that was both amusing and painful. North Korean authorities have asked citizens to do the impossible to protect the portraits and posters of members of the Kim dynasty as tropical storm Khanun approaches.

Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, said the people’s “foremost focus” should be “ensuring the safety” of propaganda portraits of its current leader, Kim Jong-un, his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung. Another news site said portraits of Kim Jong-un and Kim Il-sung are hung at every house and office. If any person were to destroy them, even if inadvertently, they could be sentenced to death.

This news reminded me of the joy of living in Britain where the government doesn’t ask you to save any portrait from a storm. The same can be said about living in Lebanon, in spite of its problems and it’s falling deeper and deeper into the abyss. I am confident that the North Korean leader, whose missiles can reach various corners of the world, won’t take long in acquiring AI to employ in his arsenal. It’s nice to live in your own home without the leader Mr. President or his grandfather being able to count your smiles or breaths.

Obviously, we are not in a better world. We can say, however, that Kim Jong-un is in a better position now than he was a few years ago when his regime was living in near total isolation. Now, the venerable leader has found a vital place in the world that was born out of the “special military operation” that Comrade Vladimir Putin launched in Ukraine.

Two weeks ago, the world witnessed how the North Korean leader celebrated the anniversary of the truce between the two Koreas with a military parade that showed off shiny drones and nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles. More importantly, the smiling leader was surrounded by a Chinese official and another extraordinary guest, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was warmly welcomed in North Korea. It has been claimed that the Russian army that is fighting in Ukraine is equipping itself with North Korean weapons.

On the other side of the world, we have seen images of “boats of death” and corpses of migrants floating in the sea. This painful phenomenon is bound to get worse because failed states, which are forcing their youth to embark on these fatal sea journeys to escape poverty, oppression and corruption, have not learned or refuse to learn.

Moreover, studies have shown that global warming will force the migration of millions, especially from countries that are dealing with desertification and drought. Leaders in those countries continue to boast about their longevity in power while ignoring the impending disasters. We mustn't forget the harrowing images of wildfires in Algeria, Canada, Greece, Portugal and other countries, where the flames appear to be burning the very flesh of the earth.

In Africa, millions of people are going hungry in Sudan that is being torn apart by the war of the two generals. It is hunger in a country that was once said could be the region’s breadbasket. We mustn’t forget that Africa is again turning to generals and coups and counting on the warmonger and mine-loving Wagner leader’s help. Yes, Fidel Castro once sent forces to Angola and Ethiopia, but he was Castro and the world was different then. The most dangerous aspect of the instability in Africa is the possibility that ISIS will use it as an opportunity to fortify itself in its forests and deserts, meaning the continent is in store for more wars, poverty and pain.

Global warming. Rising poverty. “Death boats”. Food security under threat. Instability. The return of threatening rhetoric. The river of blood in the Ukraine-Russian conflict. The embers in Taiwan and its surrounding regions. The US fear of China’s rise. India’s fear of the Chinese monster. The small countries’ fear of the conflict between giants.

These are all factors that mean we are racing - without any brakes or safety switches - towards a more dangerous world. The world has the right to celebrate AI, but it is also obligated to remember that the incredible technological progress is being coupled by a flagrant lack of human progress. Look no further that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has been relegated to making warnings and organizing funerals.