The New Pecking Order in the World

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Written by Ana C. Rold

In 2017, at the start of the school year in Russia, President Vladimir Putin famously declared that “whoever becomes the leader in this [artificial intelligence] sphere will become the ruler of the world.” It wasn’t an over the top declaration. In fact, if we pay attention to the investments and policies of superpowers and emerging powers alike, the evidence is there that we have entered a new geopolitical kind of struggle, the kind that will play out both in the physical and the digital realm.

Who is emerging as a winner or loser of this new race?

This question was the focus of a recent panel I participated in at the annual WORLDWEBFORUM, whose theme this year was “Master or Servant”. The panel featured perspectives by experts from China, the United States, Japan, and the European Union who debated the new digital battles for dominance in AI. Despite some argument on which battles we can even have (will social media destroy our minds and can we even do anything about it?) the consensus was that there is an undeniable power-play between the U.S. and China when it comes to AI. And other countries are following suit, hoping for their strategic advantage. But unlike the race to land first on the moon, the one for AI dominance is much more complex.

Who will emerge victorious in this—now literal—arms race? First, here is the graphic truth. Seventy-six of the world’s top AI startups were American born in 2018; only six were Chinese. But that’s about the only area America has an edge in this contest. As reported by Signal: “China has greater access to important types of data and is investing heavily to catch up elsewhere.”

China in the spotlight

In 2017, the government of China put out its plan to lead the world in Artificial Intelligence by 2030. According to Eric Schmidt “it’s pretty simple. By 2020, they will have caught up. By 2025, they will be better than us. By 2030, they will dominate the industries of AI.”

And the numbers don’t lie, says Peter Diamandis: “PricewaterhouseCoopers recently projected AI’s deployment will add $15.7 trillion to the global GDP by 2030, with China taking home $7 trillion of that total, dwarfing North America’s $3.7 trillion in gains.”

It’s common to read about China and the U.S. as being in competition. What started with the “Tariff Wars” has moved to the digital realm. President Trump’s recent executive order laid out a bold vision for how to make America number one in artificial intelligence, a move aimed at China’s rise in this competition and perhaps the beginning of a response. However, critics say it’s light where it matters.

Everything except money

The “American AI Initiative” has arrived two years after the Chinese plan, and later than several other countries (18 countries—from India to Australia—have launched national AI strategies in the past couple of years). This is important. Half the countries that declared AI initiatives have committed new funding, China has committed tens of billions of dollars, but the U.S. has yet to allocate specific funds. Indeed, the U.S. has put out plenty of research and reports, but so far it has only asked federal agencies to prioritize existing funds towards AI projects; it has not committed new funds. The critics are unanimous: the U.S. is prioritizing but not exactly funding AI, and that’s the real national emergency.

An AI arms race

It won’t be long before the AI race becomes an actual arms race. A new report from the Center for New American Security details the views of Chinese leadership vis-à-vis AI, and they are not limited to the economic realm. The report gives an insider’s view of China’s AI strategy as it pertains to its military ambitions.

The key takeaway: military use of AI (and other technologies) is central to China’s overall AI strategy. Chinese leaders don’t want to depend on Western technology anymore and see AI as a way to catch up with rival nations.

In the United States, the Department of Defense has been investing on “intelligent machines” since the 1960s and that funding played a key role in establishing what we now know as Artificial Intelligence. Now, the Pentagon is calling for fast adoption of AI in all aspects of the U.S. military. A day after the announcement of the “American AI Initiative” by the White House, DOD announced its own unclassified version of its AI strategy.

At a news briefing on the day of the launch, Dana Deasy, DOD’s Chief Information Officer said: “Russian and Chinese investments in military AI technology heighten the need for U.S. forces to use more AI, too. We must adopt AI to maintain our strategic position and prevail on future battlefields.”

What about the rest of the world?

Governments worldwide have responded to the economic and military promises of AI through new national strategies to drive growth and competitiveness. A November 2018 report by Canadian-based CIFAR surveyed the current landscape and found that 18 nations have released AI strategies, of which nine are fully funded and outline specific policies, and nine are guiding documents that present objectives guiding future policies.

Not all of the world’s nations can afford the luxury to invest in AI and enter the race, but according to Yuval Noah Harari they can’t afford not to. In a recent editorial, the author of “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” said “all countries, regardless of whether they are tech superpowers or not, will feel the effects of the AI revolution.” 

Beyond the future economic and future military objectives surrounding AI, there is an even more important dimension: the future of life itself. According to Harari “The combination of AI and biotechnology will be critical for any future attempts to redesign bodies, brains, and minds. Elites in the United States and China who have access to those technologies could determine the course of evolution for everyone, according to their particular values and interests.”

Will diplomacy prevail?

Humanity survived the Cold War and its flirtation with mutually assured destruction (MAD) through good old-fashioned (track one and track two) diplomacy. Indeed, while the AI race has both economic and military dimensions, the future of our society will depend on cooperation and diplomacy. At least, this was the sentiment at the inaugural U.S.-China AI Tech Summit in Half Moon Bay last summer. The organizers, led by Silicon Valley-based AI Alliance, a non-profit that convenes tech executives and policymakers in the global AI community to cooperate on initiatives.

The plan is for many more of these forums and summits in the coming year. “Ultimately, no single meeting can address the gravity and scope of the challenges we face,” said Helen Liang, Managing Partner of FoundersX Ventures and the Co-President of the AI Alliance in her opening remarks. But this sort of gathering can build bridges of understanding between the world’s AI superpowers.

From healthcare to transportation, the dimensions of AI are limitless and the opportunities for collaboration on all these sectors are the “soft” diplomacy we need. The alternative: a full blow AI war, is the kind of dystopian future no one will survive from.

About the author:  Ana C. Rold teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.