Artificial intelligence and geopolitics

15 February 2018, 13:28

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming not only a promising field of research, but a trendy topic for public and political discourse. States compete in creating the most advanced AI. The usage of AI for military purposes has become a controversial issue.

Racing for being the best in the field of AI development foresees great pros, as well as some cons that can lead to growing disparities between world economies, widen the gap between rich and poor, and between richer advanced countries and poorer nations, and therefore provoke new confrontations between key geopolitical players – on the intellectual level and beyond. Below is a brief overview of the AI race champions so far.


All global ratings indicate that the United States is currently the leader by the number of companies and developments in AI. Successful developments are carried out virtually in all areas, from healthcare to cybersecurity. 

American leadership is driven by private companies. The most successful ones, such as Facebook, Alphabet and Apple, are working on AI technologies due to vast available resources and data of their customers.

However, not only large companies are engaged in the development of neural networks, machine learning and artificial intelligence. CB Insights, an analytical platform, created the AI 100 list that includes 100 most promising startups using artificial intelligence around the world. The results show a huge gap between the US and the rest of the world in terms of the number of companies and investments: 76 out of 100 companies on the list were from the USA.

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The US government plays a big role in stimulating the development of AI. In June 2016, a new Subcommittee on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence created the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan. It covers, among other things, national security and GDP growth. The plan refers to the areas in which the federal government should invest the most money. These include the sphere of security.

However, the research in AI does not seem to be a priority for Donald Trump’s Administration. Its budget proposal proposed cutting the National Science Foundation’s funding on intelligent systems by 10%, to USD 175mn.


In 2017, the Chinese government published an open plan for the development of AI, which clearly pursues their ambitious goals. By 2030, China is planning to become a leader in artificial intelligence theory, technology and application and a world centre for AI innovation. The plan of Beijing included the development of AI for military purposes. “The People’s Liberation Army seeks to leverage private sector advances in AI, while actively pursuing AI-enabled capabilities within the defence industry and military research institutes,” writes Elsa Kania, an analyst focusing on the Chinese military and technologies, in her article China seeks dominance of global AI industry at FT.

One of China’s main advantages is the will of the government to compete. Thanks to this, large investments go into the field of scientific research at universities. “Over the past decade, government spending on research has grown by double digits on average every year,” writes Sarah Zhang in China’s Artificial-Intelligence Boom at The Atlantic.

Another advantage of China over the United States is the number of people and the power to accumulate a lot of personal data about them. “Privacy laws are weak and China begins collecting information on its citizens from the moment they are born while tech giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — collectively known as BAT — are privy to what they buy, where they travel and who they chat to,” the author of China seeks dominance of global AI industry at FT claims. This is also the case with private firms, which are very heavily influenced by the state. In China there is basically no difference between the private and public sectors, and they are spending lots of money on AI.

On the other hand, Chinese companies depend on AI chips developed in the US (mainly from Nvidia (NVDA), based in Santa Clara, Calif). According to Reinhardt Krause, the author of In a Technology Race, U.S. Chips May Be Ace-In-The-Hole Vs. China at Investor’s Business Daily, Intel (INTC), the major supplier of brainy microchips for PCs, started to work with AI too. Since most AI-oriented chips are developed by US companies, China will need time to become independent and stop buying. Beijing’s plan includes the development of high-end AI chips by 2030. On the other side, the US government uses the current state of affairs and imposes a ban on American companies selling chips to China. “The Trump Administration in September blocked the sale of Lattice Semiconductor (LSCC) to a Chinese-backed investor on national-security concerns. Lattice owns programmable software technology that offers an alternative way of building AI chips. The Obama administration in 2015 barred Intel, Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) from selling high-end supercomputer chips to the Chinese government over concerns they'd be channelled to military systems,” Krause reports. China responds by hiring specialists from US companies, offering them better conditions, as well as making their own developments that contained no U.S. intellectual property.

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Europe and Russia

After the US and China, the largest number of companies and developments in the field of AI is in European countries. A research by ASGARD indicates that the UK is leading among all European countries, and most of all startup hubs (97) are located in London. The UK is followed by Germany, France and Spain. A little surprising is the fact that Switzerland has the most AI companies per citizen – 2.53 per million people. According to the rating, Ukraine has only two such hubs.

AI and robotics are also included as priorities in the strategy of the development of Digital Single Market in the European Union. Contrary to the popular opinion, the European Commission suggests that automatization brings back jobs to the market.

On September 1, 2017, Vladimir Putin spoke with students about science in an open class. He said that “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”. This means that Russia’s leadership realizes the importance of AI, including in geopolitics. Also, Putin said he would not like to see anyone “monopolize” the field.  

International rivalry

Most of the companies that bring AI into defence industry offer unmanned vehicles, such as drones. For example, Shield AI is an American AI drone platform that captures and analyses data as events unfold to keep soldiers safe and informed. Despite the possible horrific impact, about which developers and scientists warned in an open letter 2015, many countries have gotten into the AI “arms race”. The growing number of statements by world leaders on the development of this sphere, investments, as well as official government plans, indicate that this "race" becomes serious. So, let’s look closer at the development of AI in different countries.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union competed in the arms race. Just like nuclear weapon then, AI has become an absolute weapon to acquire. Machine vision, voice and face recognition can be used by the police and special forces to gather intel. Smart surveillance and command, entering hazardous zones, mining and demining, flying across obstacles, training combatants – these are the few functions that AI is going to perform in the nearest future.

Lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) with strong AI are deadly weapons that are able to act without human intervention. Autonomous weapons already exist, although they differ in the amount of autonomy from human control, meaning that the decision on the use of lethal force still belongs to humans. The creation of LAWS fuels discussions concerning the absence of accountability of AI, lack of a defined code of ethics and many other important issues.

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In 2015, prominent scientists, researchers and developers signed an open letter informing about the danger of further developments in the field of artificial intelligence. They noted that the development of an autonomous weapon that works with the help of AI and its accessibility to everyone will inevitably lead to a world arms race between countries. “Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.”

On one hand, there is a threat that AI can choose and attack the target without human intervention. This makes it extremely dangerous on the war field. On the other hand, the use of AI during the war can reduce human losses, since soldiers can be replaced with machines and robots.

Despite the threats and uncertainties that development of the AI brings today, more and more countries join “the race of champions” in AI development. The increasing amount of statements and plans published by the governments of various countries confirm that the trend towards extension of AI is expanding around the world. The invention of strong AI is almost inevitable; the problem lies in whether it will actually be used in warfare or be developed as a preventive measure for the balance of power. There are many areas in which the development of AI can be beneficial to humanity. Still, it is necessary to be particularly cautious about it in the military sphere. Given all the possibilities of AI, which humans can predict, as well as those about which humans may not know, such trends might have serious impact on international relations and geopolitics.

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