On Artificial Intelligence and Meta-Geopolitics

by Nayef Al-Rodhan

When TOPIO 1.0, a bipedal humanoid robot that plays table tennis against a human being, was first displayed in 2007, the news hardly received global acclaim. Artificial intelligence (AI) developments, which refer to intelligent computers and machines (equaling or surpassing human intelligence), have become increasingly widespread and commonplace. AI benefits our daily existence even in the most mundane aspects of life, and its uses are tested and applied in a variety of sectors—from medicine and healthcare to the economy, diplomacy, and war.

Uses and applications of AI are extremely diverse: they range from online search engines to robotics and security. AI is the basis of unmanned vehicles (which are frequently employed by the United States abroad), space applications, and finance, where AI-based algorithms can quickly find optimal solutions or process data with speed and accuracy. AI is also widely used in the health sector for diagnosis and treatment, or developments of new drugs, as well as in meteorology, telecommunications, heavy industry or agriculture, which benefits from AI through crop-monitoring and information sharing programs.

We have grown increasingly accustomed to the presence and benefits of AI-related technologies, but it is essential to realize that their extensive use has very real and concrete implications for national power and geopolitical competition. AI-based technologies are now indispensible on the battlefield and critical to military supremacy. Even beyond the military and intelligence sectors, AI and AI devices change the nature of power through their direct and profound impact on critical state capacities as they are used in key social and economic sectors: in finance, economy, agriculture, health, education, and the environment.

The AI industry progressively gained terrain in the twentieth century with input from several disciplines, such as computer science, robotics, and mechanical engineering. In the past decades, AI expanded through the development of ‘expert systems,’ which enable computers to apply heuristics and a range of rules that emulate human expertise. Intelligent machines have acquired a pivotal dimension in today’s world pushing us to rethink geopolitics and state power. Material and normative aspects have traditionally defined power in international politics, and the uses of AI impact both. More specifically, in my approach to geopolitics, called Meta-geopolitics, I posit a multidimensional view of state power comprising both soft and hard tools: domestic politics, economics, military and security issues, and diplomacy. The contributions of AI span numerous fields, and impact sectors (military and civilian) that are central to the definition of national power.

These state capacities interact with AI in very real ways. Regarding domestic politics, AI impacts the relationship between citizens and the state, being of central use for the collection and storage of information, domestic intelligence, the management of political campaigns, elections, statistics, and surveys for public policies or public order. In the finance sector, banks, brokerage firms, and insurance companies take advantage of AI to help detect fraud and check credit scores. AI applications have been employed extensively in the financial sector from data mining to hedging, trading strategies, and supply chain management.

Artificial intelligence has figured prominently in the military and security field. One such example is the U.S. military use of pattern-recognition software to guide autonomous weapons to highly precise locations. The increased use of unmanned vehicles exposes humans less to risk in warfare. However, programming robots to take risks could significantly alter the nature of warfare, turning it into a technological battle between who owns the most sophisticated and advanced technology.

Diplomacy has knowledge management at its core. AI has altered many norms and procedures in diplomacy with increasing IT-based workflow and the automation of routine activities in consular and diplomatic offices. Intelligence and data-gathering are also crucial in negotiations. The United States, for example, uses data-mining on voting patterns (mostly collected from UN databases) to learn more about electoral processes abroad.

Indeed, artificial intelligence has tremendous implications for states’ capacities. Its real-life applicability reshapes our understanding of the foundations of national power, with both the “soft” and “hard” capacities that define it. In the era of artificial intelligence, we must expand our views of the means and ways through which state power is defined and the range of resources that contribute to it

About the Author

Nayef Al-Rodhan is a Philosopher, Neuroscientist, and Geostrategist. He is a Senior Member of St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK and Senior Fellow and Director of the Centre for the Geopolitics of Globalization and Transnational Security at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland. He is the author of "Meta-Geopolitics of Outer Space: An Analysis of Space Power, Security and Governance" (New York: Palgrave, 2012) and "The Politics of Emerging Strategic Technologies: Implications for Geopolitics, Human Enhancement and Human Destiny" (New York: Palgrave, 2011).

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