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AI's world order: National security challenges and a new Cold War
A guest post by Meg McNulty
Photo credit: Free Stock photos by Vecteezy
Meg McNulty is a Research Fellow at the Center for A.I. and Digital Policy. I had noticed her work and reached out to her to draft an article on this topic. She recently started an MBA Residency with the Federal Business Team at SandboxAQ! 🌟Her Newsletter is awesome so I suggest you follow it:
Meg is an unusual talent with fresh insights on the State of A.I. from surprising angles. Her unique interests in foreign affairs at the intersection of emerging tech makes her somebody in the field to watch.
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ByMay 20th, 2023.
Widespread misinformation. Democratic decay. Rampant job loss. Today’s headlines have explored many distressing risks of artificial intelligence — conversations that are largely fueled by the rise of OpenAI, Stability AI, and others as they compete for market dominance. The narrative, however, fails to capture the military and geopolitical consequences of this media-coined ‘AI arms race.’
The phrase ‘arms race’ harkens to the Cold War, when world powers sought to acquire enough military might and geopolitical influence to operate independently and sway outcomes in their favor. These decades were largely defined by the tensions created by nations developing and stockpiling nuclear weapons. And while the ‘AI arms race’ that the media clings to largely implies market competition, this isn’t to say that there is an AI arms race of a different nature churning just beneath our radar.
🤖 AI-heated competition and isolationism
The national security implications stemming from this AI arms race are far-reaching. On one hand, AI-powered military technologies hold promise for improved capabilities, efficiency, and precision in warfare, facilitating quicker and more accurate decision-making processes. However, the competition among nations is also deeply concerning, as each invests more to dominate the military landscape.
The potential to gain an upper hand in the military space has incentivized many countries to invest heavily, creating unease among neighbors and adversaries. As nations strive to outcompete one another in AI innovation, they’re also vying to dominate AI supply chains to ensure stability. In effect, we’re seeing the emergence of a trend opposite of globalization: isolationism.
Isolationism reflects a shift toward national self-reliance, where nations prioritize their own interests over international collaboration. In the military sphere, this approach has key advantages; nations do not rely upon each other for security, and lower their risk of manipulation.
Yet isolationism, particularly in connection with AI, brings many consequences that outweigh the benefits. The geopolitical shift undermines the potential for collective problem-solving, diminishes the effectiveness of global institutions, and heightens the likelihood of conflict. Artificial intelligence carries grave dangers. Geopolitical tensions intensify as nations fight for AI dominance, triggering debates around data sovereignty, human rights, and the erosion of international collaboration. For this reason many experts, including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, are calling for national regulation and even international cooperation to restrain AI’s darker potential. Isolationism would make any cooperation vastly more difficult.
Both the US and China, for example, view AI as a key component of their military strategies. Largely seen as the leaders in AI development, they're pouring substantial resources into research, development, and implementation of AI-driven systems for diverse defense applications — ranging from autonomous weapons and surveillance to cyber warfare and decision-making support.
Concerns arise regarding the ethical and humanitarian ramifications of autonomous weapons, the potential for AI-related accidents or vulnerabilities, and the erosion of human control in critical decision-making scenarios. This AI arms race also presents challenges in terms of establishing international norms, regulations, and governance frameworks. The absence of a consensus on ethical guidelines, limitations, and standards for AI in military applications, heightens the risk of escalating conflicts if AI-driven confrontations were to occur.
While AI continues to dominate headlines, few have examined just what this hype means for global stability — and how it is changing our very assumptions of global peace.
Photo Credit: Pexels
🌦️ Behind the curtain: The two battlegrounds of tech and geopolitics
If we take a step back, it’s easy to see how the AI arms race is fueling military competition and isolationism. Behind the curtain of all AI development lie chips and data — the latter of which have simultaneously become the battlegrounds of geopolitical competition. Advanced chips provide the necessary processing power for AI, while cross-border data flows act as the raw materials for training and refining AI algorithms. The two are intricately linked to AI due to their vital roles in shaping technological advancement and economic power. Dominance in these areas equates to a strategic edge in AI development, and has helped fuel geopolitical tensions.
Perhaps the most timely example of the chips battleground is the US’ decision to restrict China’s access to AI hardware — a pivotal move toward isolating both US and Chinese AI innovation, and setting the stage for a longer-term competition.
In October 2022, the US rolled out a series of economic restrictions to cut off China's access to advanced supercomputer components, including semiconductors and chips. The sanctions impact China's reliance on the US for advancing AI in domains, including defense and security.
China perceives this action to be an existential threat to its economic, technological, and military security. As a result, each nation is cooperating less on trade and is more incentivized to compete for dominance in the chips and AI sector. And while some hoped the US’ move would curtain Chinese AI innovation, others believe it was exactly the fuel needed to kickstart China’s internal AI investment and set the nations off to a 21st-century, AI cold war.
Advanced semiconductor chips serve as the foundation of modern technology, powering AI systems, data centers, mobile devices, and a vast array of electronic devices. With the rapid expansion of AI applications across industries, the demand for high-performance chips is skyrocketing. In effect, a nation's ability to drive AI innovation and maintain a competitive edge hinges on controlling chip manufacturing and technological advancements. Securing a robust position in chip manufacturing is critical for countries aiming to lead in AI development, and safeguard themselves from relying on other nations for these materials.
The consequence of the sanctions? A geopolitical arms race that threatens to fragment markets for high technology. Moreover, this type of competition could make it much more difficult for nations to collaborate on regulations that protect us from the threats of artificial intelligence.
In parallel, cross-border data flows play an equally vital role in the AI landscape. Data is the lifeblood of AI algorithms, enabling machine learning and model training. Global data flows facilitate access to diverse datasets, enhancing the accuracy and capabilities of AI systems. Yet not all data is equal, and countries have different opinions about what data should be collected, and who has access to it.
This is one of the leading issues buttressing the ongoing TikTok discussions, including Montana’s recent ban of the app. US politicians fear that their citizens’ personal data is being collected by China, and may be leveraged for self-serving motives. Nations harbor concerns regarding data sovereignty, privacy, and security. Exerting control over cross-border data flows grants countries an advantage in harnessing AI's potential.
Photo Credit: Pexels
⏳ Game theory at play: Fragility in global interdependence
Over the past half-century, the world has experienced a relatively more peaceful period compared to previous eras. This can be attributed to several reasons. The possession of nuclear weapons by major powers, for example, created a delicate balance of power and deterred large-scale conflict. International organizations have also provided platforms for diplomatic negotiations and conflict resolution. Nations increasingly profited from international collaboration — giving rise to large-scale globalization, as nations exchanged ideas, products, and resources for mutual benefit. Many economies grew exponentially as supply chains integrated. Nations interchange ideas and investments with a speed that was unimaginable just a few hundred years ago.
Yet globalization has also brought about significant risks — risks of which today, are breaking down this same global interconnectivity. In short, globalization implies a reliance upon other nations for military and economic security. And as game theory dictates, reliance brings inherent fragility. Emerging technologies — and artificial intelligence in particular — are not only beneficial in industries such as agriculture, education, and transportation, but have a multitude of use cases in the military domain.
AI offers significant potential for enhancing military capabilities, from autonomous weapons and advanced surveillance to improved efficiency, precision, and situational awareness. These are major advantages to the nation armed with the technology, and major threats to all others. Participating in a global AI supply chain leaves countries vulnerable to geopolitical conflicts, and may very well advance the military of allies and opponents alike.
Here lies the security threat, and the source of today’s rise in isolationism. A growing sense of uncertainty and mistrust between nations is leading to a geopolitical landscape that is increasingly fragmented. This trend is apparent not only in trade, but also discussions over international data transfers, the use of open-source software, and agreement upon legislation against harmful AI advancements. The pendulum is swinging back as nations fear too much interdependence.
Read more on ‘our digital disco’:
Photo Credit: Pexels
🤞🏻 Navigating geopolitics & AI’s military promise
In an era of unprecedented technological progress, the risks associated with AI loom large. The benefits of technological advancement doesn’t necessarily outweigh concerns about abuse in military operations and societal freedoms. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that the world is much less safe when countries are in a state of constant competition over collaboration.
The military realm grapples with the ethical quandaries posed by autonomous weapons systems and the potential for unintended consequences, underscoring the need for regulation. Domestically, AI's infiltration into surveillance and oppressive regimes threatens personal privacy, civil liberties, and the delicate balance between state power and individual rights. From a security standpoint, AI's vulnerabilities raise concerns about data privacy and the weaponization of AI by hostile actors.
As AI becomes increasingly integral in our lives, addressing its risks requires balancing innovation with the protection of human rights and global stability. Such cooperation is already an uphill battle, given how greatly nations differ on their regulatory approaches (or lack thereof). The US government, for example, maintains an arms length distance from the sector to maintain innovation. In contrast, China and the EU seek comprehensive guardrails to mitigate AI’s risks, albeit with very different values in the military domain.
Risk is an undeniable companion of globalization and reliance. Yet the alternative is perhaps even worse, and does not bode well for the future of both tech advancement and security.
Isolationism in the realm of AI is not just ill-advised; it's downright dangerous for national security. AI is not a solitary pursuit. It thrives on collaboration, shared knowledge, and global partnerships. AI is also a rapidly evolving field that demands continuous adaptation.
Isolationism jeopardizes the ability to stay at the cutting edge of AI innovation, deprives nations of the invaluable intelligence that comes from collaboration, and leaves them vulnerable to emerging threats. In the face of AI-driven threats and security risks, isolationism leaves us ill-prepared and ill-equipped to defend against emerging dangers.
The risks of artificial intelligence — including ethical concerns and security vulnerabilities — are already creeping up, and drawing geopolitical consequences. A lack of collaboration can have dire consequences, leaving us at the mercy of the actions of other nations — as well as of our own.
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