The Cold War that Was
In the harsh aftermath of the second world war, the nations aligned themselves to the two great power blocks: The Free West, under the leadership of the United States and the Communist Block under the guidance of Russia. Both blocks wielded their own sphere of influence and the balance of power between those two blocks defined many international developments.
The relative power of both blocks was shaped by their military power and by the support they had from other countries.
As events followed, the historic fall of the Berlin Wall fell in 1991 took down the last bastions of the Cold War with it. Russia and Eastern Europe slowly transformed into democratic societies as the need of the hour. By the end of the 20th century, the world witnessed the largest spread of democracy in human history. The USA was the last great superpower still standing and had no foreseeable contenders. The following decades witnessed several small skirmishes and regional conflicts, but pan global wars had come to an end. Or had they.
A New Kind of Global Face Off
A conflict of an entirely new kind has been brewing in the basement for the last three decades between the two new super powers USA and China. Global watchdogs are on the alert as China grew from a midsized economy in 1991 to a strategic center of power and commerce. After Chinese economy opened up in 1991, it seemed like China would converge its economy and society with the west. Many hoped that the new Chinese wealth would automatically translate in more democratic freedoms.
The largest contrast was in the approach of the two countries in their international relations. Most Western democracies followed a policy of engagement with the rest of the world, both economically and politically. China adopted a strictly mind-your-own-business and I-will-mind-mine philosophy, even as they spread their web of commerce around the entire world.
The monitoring of its own citizens has become more stringent since the new leadership in China. Although there were few political, the citizens used to enjoy substantial personal and economic freedoms for Chinese citizens. All that changed with the ushering in of the new premier Xi. Since mid-2018, the authorities censor any adverse economic news. It has been developing a social credit system that assigns a public score to each citizen based on subjective criteria like ethical behaviour and obedience to the state. A low score can actually lead to restrictions on travel and other liberties. Hard to imagine and harder to live through that – for instance – participating in a discussion on current economic policies could lead to your work travel being denied.
Under Xi’s leadership, China’s foreign policy has become more aggressive. It demands respect for its opinions from the world, and doesn’t hesitate to raise military pressure on issues like disputed islands.
China has become the most active nation in digital espionage. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, China has started a concentrated effort to help other countries with infrastructure, which appears like a friendly gesture but in reality often burdens the recipient country with debt which is then used for political and economic leverage. It extends sophisticated face-recognition and other equipment and software to other dictatorships, in order to keep citizens under control.
Artificial Intelligence – the New Kingmaker
A recent gamechanger in the AI-led powerplay was when Googles AI powered entity beat the best players of the ancient Chinese game Go in 2017. The aftershock in Chinese society was a catalyst in their turning to AI. It led to a swift realisation that AI was at the key of any future power game. The gears could be seen in motion as all large companies with AI-related technology became aligned to the government, and the Communist Party took the lead in coordinating AI for both the state and private sector.
In parallel, American foreign policy took a dramatic turn with the election of Donald Trump. The new America was mostly focused initially, on trade issues with China (and the rest of the world). Soon after, US revamped its policy to include emphasis on AI and IT-related technologies as a bridge into the future, and focused on limiting the influence of China. For example, US blocked the transfer of technology and forced other countries to stop buying high-tech IT infrastructure from Chinese companies like Huawei.
A quiet and alarming phenomenon has been the way in which the Chinese internet has become stealthier in its operations, and concealed from the world.
Both the USA and China governments now see the development of advanced IT and AI particularly as a critical element in a technology-race. And both want to win this race. The battle may currently be tilted in the favour of USA, as American companies still dominate most world IT markets, and the USA is using its strong influence to keep it this way.
The Weapon of Dependency
China has been increasingly successful in its tactic of making other countries dependent on Chinese finance and technology. The infrastructure loans that China has granted to indebted countries creates substantial leverage for China. Several weak countries in Africa and South-East Asia are rolling out IT-infrastructure that is fully developed and maintained by Chinese companies, and which is poorly understood by the host country.
Both the USA and China governments now see the development of advanced IT and AI particularly as a critical element in a technology-race.
The new Cold War between China and US has been brewing for some time now in this steely race for AI domination.
Technological supremacy is the new military might. Although military prowess is still a deterrent, increasingly technological influence and dependency have more impact in the future fight for supremacy.
USA institutions like NSA, FBI and dozens of other espionage organisations keep very close tabs on the socio-economic developments in both friend and enemy countries.
Dissidents like Edward Snowden and Wikileaks revealed only the tip of the data-mining iceberg. On the flip side, allies of USA are not privy to any strategic information about the American government and its citizens, resulting in substantial leverage of the USA on its partners.
The disparity of information-clout is even more uneven between China and the countries under its influence. Many of them have under-developed societies which are manipulated by their leaders with the help of Chinese subterfuge and know how.
Narrow View On AI
Both China and US are so locked in the race to win AI supremacy that they are poised to overshadow all other players in this quest. However, in this heated race for domination, several fundamental concerns are lost in the dust of the AI stampede.
Perhaps the questions we as a world should be asking them are “What will AI do with our society?” or “Will we be able to control AI in the future?”
The Threat of Concentrated AI Power to Mankind
How AI varies from other technologies in its scope of harm to humanity is that AI has the potential to take over any activity from us and do this exponentially better. We are in the process of creating something that can act independently from us and the far-reaching effects of this is too complicated and immense for us to comprehend.
As AI expands its reach and powers in the coming years, only other AI systems will be able to broker and manage its actions. Leaving it a ready pawn to be exploited for gains by any deluded superpower, with no alternative control point.
Already we see that China is using big data and extreme level of controls on its minorities like the Uighur Muslims. China restricts not just their basic freedoms but has even been systematically reduces the number of children they are allowed to have. This birth restriction is much more effective than the concentration camps of the Nazis ever were. Elsewhere, it is helping other countries like Myanmar control and diminish its minorities.
On High Alert
The idea that being pally with the leading superpower can keep you safe is one of the greatest myths. The solution is elsewhere – in ethical monitoring and foresight in managing the AI train.
The book “Taming the AI Beast” explores how AI could lead to the end of the human race as we know it. The steps towards this is rooted not in a sci-fi scenario but in an entirely plausible domino effect. It starts with the concentration of power in the hands of a few power brokers with AI leverage. The second fallout is the likely takeover by AI itself in a system where power is highly concentrated in the hands of a few who will rely on AI to suppress the rest. And in a culmination of this unbalanced play for power, the controlling power themselves will be taken over by an AI force without any reins.
The consequences of unbridled AI fuelled domination can be cataclysmic for the users as well as the underdogs. It will serve well for everyone if the powers were to wake up to this fact and embrace democracy and devolution of power, to ensure a protected and free life for their descendants.