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Unlocking AI could upend geopolitics

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution cemented Great Britain's claims to global superiority, and later catapulted the United States into dominance. But they were not alone. Japan and Germany also arose as major industrial, military and political powers.

What's going on: In a transition that could be as momentous, the U.S. and China today are racing to master artificial intelligence. But it's no longer clear, as had seemed the case, that one or the other will hold the field to itself. According to a new study, the winner may be forced to share geopolitical sway with smaller nations like Israel, Russia or Singapore.

The study, released by the Center for a New American Security, suggests that the U.S. government has been flat-footed in the race, and reprises a refrain that Beijing is richly supporting its own private players.

  • "The U.S. hasn't really been paying attention to sustainable sources of superiority in AI, so China could develop a first-mover advantage that would be sustainable," Gregory Allen, a senior fellow at CNAS and co-author of the report, tells Axios.
  • And if AI turns out to be easy to copy and replicate, the U.S. needs to be prepared to adapt to a diffused tech ecosystem in which AI is in the hands of smaller countries.
  • The report specifically mentions India, Israel, Russia, Singapore and South Korea. To the degree AI includes more players, it increases the "risk that countries may put aside the safety and reliability concerns" that experts have expressed given AI's capacity for social and political disruption.
  • The U.S. is ready for neither potential outcome, the report says.

One question is why experts think that AI will confer unusual geopolitical leverage.

  • The report argues that AI is akin to electricity and the combustion engine, general applications that triggered a shower of cross-cutting technologies, massive surges in productivity, and negative consequences like social and political instability.
  • That makes AI unlike nuclear weapons or the battleship, which were momentous but less dispersed in their applicability and impact.
  • "We have been waiting for the United States government to make a response commensurate to the scale of what we're observing," Allen said.

Still, it's not clear how AI will shape geopolitics, the report says, so nations need to be ready for anything, including the potential blowback:

  • "Nations that rise ahead in the AI revolution will be those that not only harness the advantages of AI, but also have an effective plan for managing the societal disruption that it will bring." 
  • It's not clear whether it will be most important to be first in cracking AI, or figuring out how to apply it. But "history suggests that the latter will be essential to global power, both military and economic. Thus, strategies for leveraging the technology will become essential."
  • Overall, power will go to governments that can best work with AI-leading local companies, harness large economic and military datasets, develop and retain a first-rate AI talent pool, and prepare a large number of companies to deploy AI.
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