The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century.
This AI opportunity coincides with a moment of strategic vulnerability. US President Joe Biden has said that America is in a “long-term strategic competition with China.” He is right. But it is not only the United States that is vulnerable; the entire democratic world is, too, because the AI revolution underpins the current contest of values between democracy and authoritarianism. We must prove that democracies can succeed in an era of technological revolution.
China is now a peer technological competitor. It is organised, resourced, and determined to win this technology competition and to reshape the global order to serve its own narrow interests. AI and other emerging technologies are central to China’s efforts to expand its global influence, surpass the economic and military power of the US, and lock down domestic stability. China is executing a centrally-directed systematic plan to extract AI knowledge from abroad through espionage, talent recruitment, technology transfer, and investments.
China’s domestic use of AI is deeply concerning to societies that value individual liberty and human rights. Its employment of AI as a tool of repression, surveillance, and social control at home is also being exported abroad. China funds massive digital infrastructure projects around the world, while seeking to set global standards that reflect authoritarian values. Its technology is being used to enable social control and suppress dissent.
To be clear, strategic competition with China does not mean we should not work with China where it makes sense. The US and the democratic world must continue to engage with China in areas such as health care and climate change. To stop trading and working with China would not be a viable path forward.
China’s rapid growth and focus on social control have made its techno-authoritarian model attractive for autocratic governments and tempting for fragile democracies and developing countries. Much work needs to be done to ensure that the US and the democratic world can package economically viable technology with diplomacy, foreign aid, and security cooperation to compete with China’s exported digital authoritarianism.
The US and other democratic countries are playing catch-up in preparing for this global tech competition. On July 13, 2021, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) hosted a Global Emerging Technology Summit that showcased an important comparative advantage that the US and our partners around the world retain: the broad network of alliances among democratic countries, rooted in common values, respect for the rule of law, and the recognition of fundamental human rights.
The global technology competition is ultimately a competition of values. Together with allies and partners, we can strengthen existing frameworks and explore new ones to shape the platforms, standards, and norms of tomorrow and ensure that they reflect our principles. Extending our global leadership in technological research, development, governance, and platforms will put the world’s democracies in the best position to harness new opportunities and defend against vulnerabilities. Only by continuing to lead in AI developments can we set standards for the responsible development and use of this critical technology.
The NSCAI’s final report provides a roadmap for the democratic international community to win this competition.
First, the democratic world must use existing international structures – including NATO, the OECD, the G7, and the European Union – to deepen efforts to address all the challenges associated with AI and emerging technologies. Here, the United Kingdom’s current presidency of the G7, with its robust tech agenda and efforts to further cooperation on a range of digital initiatives, is encouraging. The G7’s decision to involve Australia, India, South Korea, and South Africa reflects an important recognition that we must convene democratic countries from around the world in these efforts.
Likewise, the newly launched US-EU Trade and Technology Council (which in many ways mirrors NSCAI’s call for a US-EU Strategic Dialogue for Emerging Technologies) is a promising mechanism to align the world’s largest trading partners and economies.
Second, we need new structures, such as the Quad – the US, India, Japan, and Australia – to expand dialogue on AI and emerging technologies and their implications, and to enhance cooperation in standards development, telecommunications infrastructure, biotechnology, and supply chains. The Quad can serve as the foundation for broader cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region across government and industry.
And, third, we need to build additional alliances around AI and future technology platforms with our allies and partners. The NSCAI has called for the creation of a coalition of developed democracies to synchronise policies and actions around AI and emerging technologies across seven critical areas:
-Developing and operationalising standards and norms in support of democratic values and the development of secure, reliable, and trusted technologies;
-Promoting and facilitating coordinated and joint research and development on AI and digital infrastructure that advances shared interests and benefits humanity;
-Promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law through joint efforts to counter censorship, malign information operations, human trafficking, and illiberal uses of surveillance technologies;
-Exploring ways to facilitate data-sharing among allies and partners through enabling agreements, common data archival procedures, cooperative investments in privacy-enhancing technologies, and by addressing legal and regulatory barriers;
-Promoting and protecting innovation, particularly through export controls, investment screening, supply-chain assurance, emerging-technology investment, trade policy, research and cyber protections, and intellectual-property alignment;
-Developing AI-related talent by analyzing labour-market challenges, harmonising skills and certification requirements, and increasing talent exchanges, joint training, and workforce-development initiatives; and
-Launching an International Digital Democracy Initiative to align international assistance efforts to develop, promote, and fund the adoption of AI and associated technologies that comports with democratic values and ethical norms concerning openness, privacy, security, and reliability.
This momentum can be maintained only by working together. Partnerships – between governments, with the private sector, and with academia – are a key asymmetric advantage that the US and the democratic world have over our competitors. As recent events in Afghanistan have shown, US capabilities remain indispensable in allied operations, but the US must do more to rally allies around a common cause. This era of strategic competition promises to transform our world, and we can either shape the change or be swept along by it.
We now know that the uses of AI in all aspects of life will grow as the pace of innovation continues to accelerate. We also know that our adversaries are determined to turn AI capabilities against us. Now we must act.
The principles we establish, the investments we make, the national-security applications we field, the organisations we redesign, the partnerships we forge, the coalitions we build, and the talent we cultivate will set the strategic course for America and the democratic world. Democracies must invest whatever it takes to maintain leadership in the global technology competition, to use AI responsibly to defend free people and free societies, and to advance the frontiers of science for the benefit of all humanity.
AI will reorganise the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process.
Eric Schmidt, a former CEO and chair of Google/Alphabet, is Chair of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021, published here with permission.