(Bloomberg) -- For seven hours at a Geneva hotel earlier this month, top US and Chinese officials locked into talks on collectively managing their biggest fears around artificial intelligence — while keeping up a cutthroat competition to dominate technology that promises to reshape the global economy.

Their meeting marked the first government discussions on AI between the US and China, with roughly nine officials from each side stressing a shared desire to prevent nightmare scenarios like a computer-triggered nuclear war. One ironic deviation from the script: The coffee machine at the venue broke as they discussed far more advanced technology.

While the Geneva talks yielded no concrete agreements, the conversations were cordial and set the stage for continued engagement on safety and risks related to AI, according to two Biden administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. For now, there’s no follow-up meeting scheduled, they said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said after the meeting that China was “willing to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with the United States in the field of artificial intelligence, explore the use of artificial intelligence to empower sustainable development, and communicate on the next issue in risk response.”

Even as the two sides seek to cooperate on artificial intelligence, the technology is also emerging as a new arena of rivalry for the world’s two largest economies — already at odds over Taiwan, wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and US-led export restrictions on semiconductor technology.

Conversations on AI are also playing out at the United Nations and in so-called “track two” groupings of private-sector participants from the US and China, with all of this activity endorsed from the very top. The bilateral dialogue was one of the highlighted US achievements out of the last in-person meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in California in November.

Washington and Beijing are now jockeying to write the rules for AI governance, with each side portraying the other as a destabilizing force as they court the Global South. In March, the US rallied support for a UN resolution aimed at promoting “safe, secure and trustworthy” AI systems worldwide, a months-long effort backed by more than 110 countries as co-sponsors, including China. Beijing is now crafting its own proposal, intended to close gaps between rich and developing nations.

Though the US and Chinese efforts at the UN are non-binding and would do little to advance comprehensive regulation, they represent broader efforts to lead the global AI conversation. Biden initially highlighted the need to bring AI discussions to the UN and other multilateral forums when he spoke before the General Assembly in New York in September, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced his country’s push in March.

In Geneva, Biden administration officials raised concerns that China is misusing AI, including in ways that risk encroaching on human rights, while the Chinese delegation recited worries on export controls and outbound investment. The talks took place the same day that the US announced a new swath of tariffs on a range of Chinese imports, including quadrupling the tariff rate for electric vehicles.

“The fact that Beijing still participated in the talks when the US had thoroughly telegraphed the tariff hike, to me, underscores China has its own concerns about the potential applications of AI,” said Jennifer Welch, chief geo-economics analyst at Bloomberg Economics.

The US delegation made an extensive presentation of valuation measurements, transparency, and monitoring led by Elizabeth Kelly, director of the US Artificial Intelligence Safety Institute, the Biden administration officials said. One goal from the US side was to better understand how Chinese officials are planning AI regulations and gauging potential high-impact risks as well as day-to-day issues such as health care.

On the other side of the table was Yang Tao, the Chinese foreign ministry’s director-general of North American and Oceanian Affairs. His presence highlighted the different priorities that the US and China had for the talks, according to Matt Sheehan, fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who focuses on global technology issues and China.

“China appears to be treating this dialogue as one piece of managing the bilateral relationship, while the US is treating it as one piece of managing global AI risks,” Sheehan said.

US officials have stressed that the talks would not lead to deeper collaboration or research-sharing with a country that’s seen as an adversary, especially when it comes to data security. In the face of critics who question why the two sides should engage on sensitive issues at all, the Biden administration has insisted on pairing strategic competition with intensive diplomacy, featuring recent visits to China by officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

“Even if this dialogue fails to produce significant concrete steps I wouldn’t rush to label it a failure,” said Welch, who was China director at the National Security Council from May 2020 to April 2023. “In an era of intensifying strategic competition, there’s value to the two parties communicating to, at the very least, reduce misunderstandings and misperceptions.”

--With assistance from Charlie Zhu.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.