The pandemic has forced society to take stock of its relationship with technology and to see how the technological tools available to us can be used to further enhance the human experience. One technological tool has stood out during this process -AI.

With its almost limitless potential, AI has the power to shape the fortunes not just of businesses, but of countries as well. Consequently, it is not surprising that the development of AI has become one of the key geopolitical strategies of the US, the EU and China. 

But what is AI, exactly?

AI or Artificial Intelligence is a wide-ranging branch of computer science that is concerned with building smart machines that are capable of performing tasks which usually require human intelligence. 

Keeping this in mind, let us explore just how AI is shaping geopolitics.

Before and since the pandemic, China has set its sights on becoming a leader in AI, through the announcement of its ‘Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Plan’ which aimed for Chinese AI to reach a globally advanced level by 2020, and for it to be a major driving force for industrial upgrade and economic restructuring by 2025.

At present, China currently leads in the adoption and cultivation of data surrounding AI. In other areas, China may be behind the US in the short term, but in the long term it is expected to catch and up and even exceed the US. This is largely thanks to the large amount of funding from the government and private bodies, which have enabled China’s leading universities to increase interest and awareness of AI through successful courses.

The success of these courses has opened up Chinese researchers access to existing AI research and algorithms, that they then adapt and alter to suit their needs. Once they have understood what has gone before, the researchers have been able to create their own algorithms using data provided by the government, to produce their own research which has then been handed over to the government.

The government has subsequently used this research to implement a mass surveillance state to keep its populous under control, which has increased demand for Chinese surveillance apparatus in a variety of countries, some allied with China, some not. 

On the other side, there is the US, who currently lead in the research and development of AI hardware alongside having access to a much greater base of talent.  Given that the US has long led the way in technological developments, and houses tech giants such as Facebook and Google, this is not a surprise.  Companies such as Alphabet (home of Google) and Microsoft have realised the potential of AI and have begun filing patents to begin work on their own AI tools, which they hope to produce for mass consumption. Alphabet’s  DeepMind, have developed an AI system that can analyse eye scans to make diagnoses, as well as increase the value of wind energy from turbines.

As the US aims to push forward its vision of the world, the ability to show the benefits of its homegrown AI cannot be underestimated, especially as they bring such huge benefits to countries both rich and developing. 

However, unlike China which has no constraints other than those set by the government, the US’s AI push is constrained by the competing desires of privacy and innovation and the subsequent concerns that many Americans have about big tech. Both factors could see funding for American AI research and development drastically decline as competing interests still the government’s hand and further sow doubt about the benefit of AI. Putting the US at a disadvantage on the global stage, by potentially reinforcing China’s view that liberal democracy is a hindrance to innovation, whilst its own system of government is more beneficial. A view which could be strengthened by the pandemic and the contrasting response of the two countries. 

A fear of decline would help to explain why the US is so keen to partner with the EU. Whilst the EU itself is currently lagging behind both the US and China in terms of AI development and general trust and understanding amongst the populace, the political big wigs in the bloc have recognised the threat posed by China’s advancement. Indeed, during a EU parliamentary hearing on Monday, both representatives of the EU and US laid out why they need to work together on AI development. The focus was largely on working together to preserve a liberal and democratic world order, with acknowledgements that AI could be used to help improve medical procedures and reducing emissions to achieve both powers climate goals. It was acknowledged that with the US’ funding and resource base combined with the research talent that the EU offers, both sides could achieve their goals whilst keeping China’s possible influence to a minimum. 

However, competing interests look likely to thwart a concrete agreement between the two powers. The US and EU are currently renegotiating a complex and controversial deal about how to transfer data across their borders whilst also trying to figure out how to tax digital giants like Facebook and Google.

With Facebook and Google both currently looking to get their foot in the AI game, it is possible that these issues could put a spanner in any long-term cooperation, unless a viable solution is found, which may well play to China’s benefit.

AI has grown in importance since the pandemic, and its importance is helping to shape a new geopolitical order. With the US and EU facing teething problems in their alliance, one must wonder how far China will push on ahead, and whether the US and the EU will be able to sort their issues out in time to either catch up with China or contain them. Regardless, we can expect geopolitics not to be confined to the physical world anymore.

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