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The Geopolitics of Artificial Intelligence (A.I)

Tooba Mujtaba,

Artificial intelligence or simply called A.I is one of today’s most important technological trends. It is rapidly evolving domain with the potential to disrupt virtually all economic sectors. But while the attention is usually focused on its impact on business, AI can also have a major impact on society and politics, both at domestic and international level.

Of all the technological advances of our lifetime AI has most far-reaching implications. Research in this field has been going on for decades but in recent years in has become subject of particular interest attracting considerable investments from both the private and public sector. This development has been driven by the combination of three technological factors.

The first is the massive and growing amount of available information that allows big data in operation. The second is the increase of hardware computing power which enables computers to work on larger quantities of data. The third element is the most important and different one; machine learning, due to which A.I can identify regular patterns and make experience, upon which it can take decisions. Currently about 2.2 billion GB of data is generated every day. Tech firms use this data to improve algorithms that mimic human behavior. Thus the more users exchange the data the more the service is improved. Finally the fourth factor is ‘Demography’. As the populations of developed countries shrink and ages while economic growth slows down, the financial burden of the state mounts. Soon the advanced economies which are all ready to accommodate these demographic realities and so are looking to A.I to increase productivity and boost economic growth. As a matter of fact it is estimated that by 2030 AI could add 15.7 trillion dollars to the US global economy. Due to the convergence of these factors the world is on the verge of AI revolution that will define the 21st and will radically transform our socio-economic order as the Industrial revolution did in the past.

The applications of AI are countless and for this reason major firms are investing in this technology and many startups are thriving in this sector. For example between 2012 and 2016 American and Chinese firms have received 17.9 and 2.6 billion dollars in financing. But corporations are not only actors that are interested in AI systems. States are also involved to the point that and AI race has begun between technologically advanced powers.

The first reason why states want to develop AI systems is that this technology can boost their economy and consequently increase their power. It will not only create new high income jobs in its own sector but it would also have formidable spillover effect in related industries and in the service field. It is increase productivity in all industries due to faster and more efficient data management.

A.I can also be used to monitor social, political, economic and environmental trends. On the one hand this allows to take preventive actions and avoid dangerous scenarios but on the other it also means that A.I can become an extremely powerful tool enabling governments to control their own citizens and shape their mindset as well as to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. In short A.I is a tool to exert power, not much in its coercive hard form but rather in soft version by influencing by the collection and the spread of valuable information to affect the people’s perception of reality. Lastly A.I has impressive military applications including command and control, strategic planning and detection targeting and cyber warfare. But it can also take the forms of lethal autonomous weapon systems or laws. They use AI to examine the battle space and engage targets of various degrees of autonomy. A notable episode dates back to 2016 when AI powered by 35 USD Raspberry PI computers defeated a retired US air force colony in series of computer simulated dogfight. Moreover unlike the colony the AI showed no signs of fatigue. What is most important is that this represents the step forward to the ultimate stage of laws which has not yet achieved namely human out of the loop systems that they can operate in full autonomy without any human intervention. Laws are highly controversial due to the ethical implications and activists are demanding their preventive banned yet the deployment cannot be excluded in the future at least for platform operating in environments where the risk of unintended civilian causalities is minimum like air, sea and especially outer space.

This overview already showed the scale at which the technology can serve the states interests as such it is not surprising that since 2017 many countries have even published their own national strategies on A.I. The first was Canada followed by Japan, Singapore, China and many other developed economies. This shows the AI is becoming a terrain for great powers competition. In this regard it is notable that in September 2017 Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stated that:

‘’Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.’’

Yet in the A.I race there are two main players that outshine all the others which are US and China.

Until now the US remains the leader in this field even though it has not yet adopted a unified AI strategy document. Washington has clearly shown its interest in this sector. President Trump has taken a free market stance aimed at supporting American workers favoring research and invasion and preserving US primacy in AI. Pentagon is also actively working on this technology. National defense strategy recognizes China gaining ground in this field.

China’s quest for A.I is driven by the government. It acts to acquire precious foreign technology and companies and conduct its own private firms many of which are often affiliated with the government. China’s primary aim is to become world’s leading A.I center by 2030 which is clear challenge to US who wants to maintain his hegemony in this sector.

It is evident that AI technology and the power that comes from it are largely the proactive of advance countries and this will have geopolitical implications on the global scale. In spite of the world’s increasing connectivity states seem determined to affirm and preserve their cyber sovereignty by controlling and protecting data at their disposal by ensuring that AI does not become a menace in this sense. States behave on double trend which is nationalization of the tendency to intervene in the economy to direct and control the development of AI and the other is AI nationalism which refers to the use of AI to serve the interest of state and increase its power. This zero sum is driven by nationalist political forces and great power competition and the fact that states are aware that AI can be used to exert influence domestic affairs of other states and pose a threat to national sovereignty.

This will be closely linked to another phenomena namely cyber neo-colonialism. Powerful states will use their wealth and technical scientific superiority to gather precious data for poorer countries in need of advance technology which will fuel the development of AI systems will also make this kind of exploitation easier, this creates a self-lamenting circle. But losing control over data means these states will see their sovereignty deteriorated with economic and political spillovers leaving them even more vulnerable to foreign interference.

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