Artificial Intelligence (AI) is poised to radically transform societies, often tagged as the most strategic technology of the 21st century. AI is a general-purpose technology, a concept extracted from economics, which describes a technology that is likely to affect significantly all sectors of economy and society, like electricity did.
Due to the huge potential of AI applications, both economic and military, corporations and governments are competing to gain technological edge as drivers to the next great economic expansion. PwC estimates that AI can add up to US$ 15.7 trillion to the global economy, an addition of 14% to global GDP, by 2030. According to the OECD AI Policy Observatory, there are over 300 initiatives from over 60 countries for AI development.
Throughout history, technology has played a vital role in shaping global politics. Beyond the military domain, new developments in technology are accelerating the change from cooperation and towards competition. There is a growing realization of AI’s importance, including its ability to provide competitive edge. Not surprisingly, it has lightened up discussions in the international arena, raising concerns to the United States role as the world’s leading innovator. While the United States (U.S.) remains at the forefront of AI development, China is rapidly gaining ground and relevance. Former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary, Robert Work, has compared the U.S.-China race to lead AI developments to the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (USSR).
In this context, there are two potential paths resulting from the exposed scenario. First, one may consider that the willingness for achieving this competitive advantage will lead runners to put aside safety and reliability concerns, creating an environment of suspicion and threats. On the other hand, one may suggest that governments, corporations, and the society will gather their efforts to build human-centered AI foundations through cooperative arrangements.
What is power in the age of AI?
Power is the notion of an actor causing or having the ability to cause another actor to do something that it would rather not do. The accumulation of power ultimately leads to the conformation of hegemony, when one state is powerful enough to maintain the essential rules governing interstate relations.
Historical periods can be defined by the distribution of power, how nations engage to preserve national interests and how they articulate those interests in order to build international legitimacy. In general, orders change when interests change, and institutions no longer reflect what great powers want. Transition periods as such usually manifest through wars or major international crises. It was the case of the First World War, triggered by the constant rivalry between European countries and the British hegemony’s inability to promote stability in the international system.
As China and other authoritarian regimes build their digital systems and propagate these models abroad, they are competing with traditional powers and democracies in shaping global standards, building the digital infrastructure, and, ultimately, the international regime for AI.
With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. emerged as the only military, economic, technological, cultural and political hegemony. By that time, China would only appear as a regional power, not representing ideological threats to the West. Currently, the international system, built upon liberal rules and multilateral institutions is weakened. The U.S. and most Western democracies are facing nationalist movements and appear to be less committed to the system resultant of their own ideas.
New spaces and opportunities are rising to reshape the global order, especially for China, to create its own leadership. In this scenario, the competition between the U.S. and China for AI leadership seems to be one of the key elements of great power rivalry of our time. On the one hand, this confrontation entangles political, economic, and security issues that will test world power’s ability to capitalize emerging technologies, such as AI, ensuring future economic growth. Ultimately, this ability will be a strong element of power projection.
The increased adoption of AI as a key element of national power will deliver diverse capabilities that influence economic and military strengths. It is not clear yet, but there are vital aspects of AI that contribute to building national power:
- Owning large amounts of data: deep learning requires large datasets to reach high performance AI systems. Thus, having greater datasets means an advantage in developing superior applications.
- Computing resources: greater resources to train machines will play an advantage for countries and organizations with access to high technology capable of building cutting-edge AI systems.
- AI talent: building a talent pool for technology development by training and empowering AI talent with the right skills to develop and implement advanced AI systems will benefit countries willing to make such investments. The adoption of immigration policies is also important to attract top-tier AI talent globally.
- Research & Development: fostering initial AI investments to building industry leadership is an important tool for economic power. Moreover, increasing investment for AI research with national security applications in areas that are unlikely to be funded by the private sector is also important.
- Private collaboration: in the most innovative nations, the private sector companies have greater participation in key innovative areas instead of governments (R&D, patents).
- Displaced workers: the impact of AI on national economic power will depend on how governments decide to adopt and use AI capabilities. Determining economic policy options for displaced workers will matter.
- Setting internationally norms, principles, and standards: human values are embedded in computer algorithms and AI deployment. Yet, there is no definition on what those values should be. A global leadership in AI will have to proactively shape rules, principles, and standards for AI applications, ultimately resulting in the construction of an international regime.
The international strategic competition for AI leadership
The two nations leading this competition are the U.S. and China – and for both states the pursuit of technological dominance in AI is playing out on both commercial and military fields.
Even though the current boom in AI started around the year of 2012 with deep learning’s significant progress, special attention to this technology as an element of strategic competition between the U.S. and China started to be given only a few years later. AI first appeared in the 2016 Report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission as a recommendation to the Congress to address the impacts of China’s state-driven plans – Made in China 2025 and Internet Plus – over the U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.
In 2017, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China published the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. The Chinese strategy undertakes three steps to achieve strategic goals by the years of 2020, 2025 and 2030. Through the aforementioned plan, China wants to develop a world-leading level in the overall technology and application of AI, promoting major breakthroughs in AI basic theory and application. Ultimately, the strategy aims at turning the country into the world’s major AI center for innovation.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, scholars have been discussing the future of the U.S.-China relations. From the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, it has evolved from tense disagreements to a complex mix of growing international rivalry and increasingly interdependent economies. As China builds its digital systems and propagates these models abroad, it has been competing with traditional powers and democracies in shaping global standards, infrastructure, and, ultimately, the international regime for AI.
In the same year that China released its AI strategy, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) received the mandate to investigate China’s laws, policies and actions that harnessed the U.S. intellectual property rights (IPR), innovation or technology development, under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. The investigation found out that four Chinese IPR-related practices were unreasonable and burdened U.S. commerce by (1) forcing technology transfer requirements, (2) cyber-enabling theft of U.S. IP and trade secrets, (3) discriminatory licensing practices, and (4) state-funded strategic acquisition of U.S. assets. As a result, the U.S. imposed additional tariffs on approximately $370 billion worth of imports from China, and requested the establishment of a panel at the World Trade Organization (DS542).
For the above mentioned reasons, one observed in the news that the U.S. banned a few Chinese companies. The President released Executive Orders stating that 45 days from the issuing date, U.S. companies and American citizens would not be able to advertise with TikTok and WeChat platforms. TikTok for instance had to sell 20% of its operations to Oracle and Walmart in order to remain in the country. Regarding Huawei, another Executive Order issued by the U.S. President forced local telecom companies to switch from Chinese suppliers. Through these measures, the government expects to reduce the world’s reliance on the technology, equipment and services provided by Chinese companies.
Specialists have described the relationship between democracies and non-democracies as an “atmosphere of suspicion”. As the shifting balance of power between the U.S. and China is threatening the post-World War II global order, the U.S. judgement of China has become more negative in recent years. Consequently, many scholars consider this chapter of the U.S.-China relations as an era of strategic competition for science and technology leadership. Thus, AI development is central to this debate, as the major enabling technology.
For the rest of the world, this competition means growing pressure to limit interactions with China and increasingly restrictive export control policies by the U.S. government. As the global AI ecosystem gets more affected by nationalised and securitised initiatives, the international society must discuss how to counterweight it. At the same time, it is essential for other countries as well to develop solid national strategies for leveraging their own AI-related technologies.