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On AI and Geopolitics: Digital Empires, Soft Power, the “Usual Suspects” plus Africa and Ukraine

Posted: May 6th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, Geopolitics | Tags: , , | Comments Off on On AI and Geopolitics: Digital Empires, Soft Power, the “Usual Suspects” plus Africa and Ukraine

Artificial intelligence has become a genuine instrument of power. This is as true for hard power (military applications) as for soft power (economic impact, political and cultural influence, etc.). Whilst the United States and China dominate the market and impose their pace: Europe, lagging behind, is trying to respond by issuing new regulations; Africa has become a battlefield for the new digital empires, and Ukraine has turned into the test-bed for AI-based military innovations and developments.

In September 2017 Vladimir Putin, speaking before a group of Russian students and journalists, stated: “Artificial intelligence is the future. . . Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Sharp and accurate. AI is a more generic term than it seems: in fact, artificial intelligence is a collective imaginary onto which we project our hopes and our fears. The rapid progress of AI makes it a powerful tool from the economic, political, and military standpoints. AI will help determine the international order for decades to come, stressing and accelerating the dynamics of an old cycle in which technology and power reinforce one another. 

Nowadays we are witnessing to the birth of digital empires. These are the result of an association between multinationals, supported or controlled to varying degrees by the states that financed the development of the techno-scientific bases on which these companies could innovate and thrive. These digital empires would benefit from economies of scale and the acceleration of their concentration of power in the economic, military, and political fields thanks to AI. They would become the major poles governing the totality of international affairs, returning to a “logic of blocs.”

It would be tempting to think that AI is a neutral tool but not at all, indeed. Artificial intelligence is not situated in a vacuum devoid of human interests. Big data, computing power, and machine learning -the three foundations behind the rise of AI- in fact form a complex socio-technical system in which human beings have played and will continue to play a central part. Thus, it is not really a matter of “artificial” intelligence but rather of “collective” intelligence, involving increasingly massive, interdependent, and open communities of actors with power dynamics of their own. Let’s explain this framework: 

Teams of engineers construct vast sets of data (produced by each and all: consumers, salesmen, workers, users, citizens, Governments, etc.), design, test, and parameter algorithms, interpret the results, and determine how they are implemented in our societies. Equipped with telephones and ever more interconnected “intelligent” objects, billions of people use AI every day, thus participating in the training and development of its cognitive capacities.

For the majority of these companies, the product is free or inexpensive (for example, the use of a search engine or a social network). As in the media economy, the essential thing for these platforms is to invent solutions that mobilize the “available human brain time” of the users, by optimizing their experience, in order to transform attention into engagement, and engagement into direct or indirect incomes. In addition to concentrating on the attention of the users, the big platforms use their data as raw material. These data are analyzed to profile and better understand users in order to present them with personalized products, services, and experiences at the right time. 

Even if their products and services have unquestionably benefited users worldwide, these companies (Apple, Alibaba, Amazon, Huawei, Microsot, Xiaomi, Baidu, Tencent, Facebook, Google…) are also engaged in a zero-sum contest to capture our attention, which they need to monetize their products. Constantly forced to surpass their competitors, the various platforms depend on the latest advances in the neurosciences to deploy increasingly persuasive and addictive techniques, all in order to keep users glued to their screens. By doing this, they influence our perception of reality, our choices and behaviors, in a powerful and as yet completely unregulated form of soft power. The development of AI and its worldwide use are thus constitutive of a type of power making it possible, by non-coercive means, to influence actors’ behavior or even their definition of their own interests. In this sense, one can thus speak of a “political project” on the part of the digital empires, commingled with the mere quest for profit. 

The development of AI corresponds to the dynamics of economies of scale and scope, as well as to the effects of direct and indirect networks: the digital mega-platforms are in a position to collect and structure more data on consumers, and to attract and finance the rare talents capable of mastering the most advanced functions of AI. As Cédric Villani wrote in Le Monde in June 2018: “These big platforms capture all the added value: the value of the brains they recruit, and that of the applications and services, by the data that they absorb. The word is very brutal, but technically it is a colonial kind of procedure: you exploit a local resource by setting up a system that attracts the value added to your economy. That is what is called cyber-colonization“.

National actors are increasingly aware of the strategic, economic, and military stakes of the development of AI. In the past 24 months, France, Canada, China, Denmark, the European Commission, Finland, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Scandinavian and Baltic region, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom have all unveiled strategies for promoting the use and development of AI. Not all countries can aspire to leadership in this sphere. Rather, it is a matter of identifying and constructing comparative advantages, and of meeting the nation’s specific needs. Some states concentrate on scientific research, others on the cultivation of talent and education, still others on the adoption of AI in administration, or on ethics and inclusion. India, for instance, wants to become an “AI garage” by specializing in applications specific to developing countries. Poland is exploring aspects related to cybersecurity and military uses.

Today, the United States and China form an AI duopoly based on the critical dimensions of their markets and their laissez-faire policies regarding personal data protection. The same as USA, China has also integrated AI into its geopolitical strategy. Since 2016, its “Belt & Road” initiative for the construction of infrastructures connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe has included a digital component under the “Digital Belt and Road” program. The program’s latest advance was the creation of a new international center of excellence for “Digital Silk Roads” in Thailand in February 2018. 

And Europe? Just falling far behind China and the United States in techno-industrial terms. The European approach seems to consist in taking advantage of its market of 500 million consumers to provide the foundations of an ethical industrial model of AI, while renegotiating a de facto strategic partnership with the United States.

Private investment is the key element and Europe lags really behind. The US is leading the race (€44 billion) in 2022, followed by China (€12 billion), and the EU and the United Kingdom (UK) together attracting €10.2 billion worth of private investment, according to 2023 AI Index of Stanford University. The AI revolution is perceived in Europe as a wave coming from abroad that threatens its socio-economic model, to be protected against. The EU is searching for model of AI that ties together the reclamation of sovereignty and the quest for power with respect for human dignity. Balancing these three desiderata will not be easy: by regulating from a position of extreme weakness and industrial dependency in relation to the Americans or the Chinese, Europe is likely to block its own rise to power

Africa – The great and not anymore forgotten battlefield 

The African continent is practically virginal in terms of digital infrastructures oriented towards AI. The Kenyan government is to date the only one to develop a strategy in this respect. However, Africa has enormous potential for exploring the applications of AI and inventing new business and service models. Chinese investments in Africa have intensified over the last decade, and China is currently the primary trade partner of the African nations, followed by India, France, the United States, and Germany. Africa is probably the continent where cyber-imperialisms are most evident. Examples of the Chinese industrial presence are numerous there: Transsion Holdings became the first smartphone company in Africa in 2017. ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications giant, provides infrastructure to the Ethiopian government. CloudWalk Technology, a start-up based in Guangzhou, signed an agreement with the Zimbabwean government and will work in particular on facial recognition.

A powerful cyber-colonialist phenomenon is at work here. Africa, confronted with the combined urgencies of development, demography, and the explosion of social inequalities, is embarking on a logical but very unequal techno-industrial partnership with China. As the Americans did to Europe after the war, China massively exports its solutions, its technologies, its standards, and the model of company that goes with these to Africa, while also providing massive financing. Nonetheless, the American AI giants are mounting a counterattack. Google, for example, opened its first AI research center on the continent in Accra. Moreover, GAFAM is multiplying startup incubators and support programs for the development of African talent. 

Ukraine – The Test-bed of AI-based military developments

Early on the morning of June 1, 2022, Alex Karp, the CEO of Palantir Technologies, crossed the border between Poland and Ukraine on foot with five colleagues. A pair of Toyota Land Cruisers awaited on the other side to take them to Kyiv to meet the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Karp told Zelensky he was ready to open an office in Kyiv and deploy Palantir’s data and artificial-intelligence software to support Ukraine’s defense. 

The progress of this alliance has been striking. In the year and a half since Karp’s initial meeting with Zelensky, Palantir has embedded itself in the day-to-day work of a wartime foreign government in an unprecedented way. More than half a dozen Ukrainian agencies, including its Ministries of Defense, Economy, and Education, are using the company’s products. Palantir’s software, which uses AI to analyze satellite imagery, open-source data, drone footage, and reports from the ground to present commanders with military options. Ukrainian officials state thez are using the company’s data analytics for projects that go far beyond battlefield intelligence, including collecting evidence of war crimes, clearing land mines, resettling displaced refugees, and rooting out corruption. Palantir was so keen to showcase its capabilities that it provided them to Ukraine free of charge.

It is far from the only tech company assisting the Ukrainian war effort. Giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Starlink have worked to protect Ukraine from Russian cyberattacks, migrate critical government data to the cloud, and keep the country connected, committing hundreds of millions of dollars to the nation’s defense. The controversial U.S. facial-recognition company Clearview AI has provided its tools to more than 1,500 Ukrainian officials. Smaller American and European companies, many focused on autonomous drones, have set up shop in Kyiv too.

Some of the lessons learned on Ukraine’s battlefields have already gone global. In January 2024 the White House hosted Palantir and a handful of other defense companies to discuss battlefield technologies used against Russia in the war. The battle-tested in Ukraine stamp seems to be working.

Ukraine’s use of tools provided by companies like Palantir and Clearview also raises complicated questions about when and how invasive technology should be used in wartime, as well as how far privacy rights should extend. Human-rights groups and privacy advocates warn that unchecked access to this tool, which has been accused of violating privacy laws in Europe, could lead to mass surveillance or other abuses. That may well be the price of experimentation. Ukraine is a living laboratory in which some of these AI-enabled systems can reach maturity through live experiments and constant, quick reiteration. Yet much of the new power will reside in the hands of private companies, not governments accountable to their people. 

Summing up, AI is indeed an instrument of power right now, and it will be increasingly so as its applications develop, particularly in the military field. However, focusing exclusively on hard power would be a mistake, insofar as AI exercises indirect cultural, commercial, and political influence over its users around the world. This soft power, which especially benefits the American and Chinese digital empires, poses major problems of ethics and governance. The big platforms must integrate these ethical and political concerns into their strategy. AI, like any technological revolution, offers great opportunities, but also presents —overlapping with these— many risks.