Home / Opinion / Columns /  The other high-stakes war that must be nipped right in the bud
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No sooner has the pandemic retreated, bugles of war have been sounded. The sound of war trumpets has shattered a long-standing principle encoded in the famous Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which brought an end to the Thirty Years’ and the Eighty Years’ Wars in Europe and delivered peace to the Holy Roman Empire. The two tenets of the treaty have been the normative core of international law: one that the government of each country has unequivocal sovereign authority within its territorial jurisdiction; and two, countries shall not interfere in one another’s domestic affairs. Until Russia decided to shatter it.

While we are riveted and horrified by this conventional war fought over ground, air, sea and social media, there is a more insidious and dangerous war being fought between adversaries in another area: artificial intelligence (AI). Consider this statement from a joint paper by Eric Schmidt and Robert Work: “We must win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China… China’s domestic use of AI is “a chilling precedent for anyone around the world who cherishes individual liberty…" A recent book co-authored by Henry Kissinger echoes this ‘win at all costs’ sentiment. The Financial Times supports this: “…China has embarked on an arms race to develop AI-controlled weapons, in which the US and its allies are now determined to compete. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has made his own intentions clear by declaring: “whoever leads in this sphere will rule the world"."

All big powers are joining the fray to ‘lead this sphere’. China has committed billions of dollars to become a world leader in AI by 2030 by building a $150 billion AI industry, focusing on smart cities, the military and surveillance. Its tech giants—Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and Huawei—have been allotted specific AI areas to focus on. China has a big advantage: the data spewed out by its billion-plus connected people, with no privacy and security concerns hampering the harvesting of it. The results are showing. Nearly a quarter of papers published in AI come from China and it is filing more patents than any country.

Meanwhile, the US president through an executive order in 2018 proclaimed AI to be the second-highest research and development (R&D) priority for America, after the security of its people. While it has committed to pour tens of billions of research money into AI, it is US tech giants that are leading the charge. The work is happening in both civilian and military areas: Project Maven, a facial recognition tool built by Google; Palantir’s data farms working for the US spy agencies, Microsoft and Amazon vying to host the Defense Department’s data in their clouds.

Other world powers have stepped up too. Japan is focusing on robotics. The EU has promised €1.5 billion for AI-related research and support. The French and Germans have chosen specific areas to focus their billions on: autonomous vehicles, healthcare, industrials, and the environment. The UK has chosen a different path with its stated aim to position itself as a world leader in ethical AI standards, hoping to create standards that are used across the world. Russia, following Putin’s statement, has committed $6.1 billon for making 30% of its military robotic by 2025. India has also woken up to join this race with its own Artificial Intelligence Mission to support R&D as part of an ‘AI for All’ programme.

The prize is perhaps worth fighting for: $17 trillion of value added by 2030, according to PwC. But also important is the geopolitical aspect of AI victory: as oil shaped geopolitics in the last century, AI will shape it in the next one, with its potential to transform warfare ( ) and economies. But as Stephen Cave, et al, write in a Cambridge university paper (, the narrative of AI as a race is both wrong and threatening. In this highly volatile world, it is perhaps time to change the narrative: to make AI a shared priority for the global good, just as scientists shared coronavirus DNA and research across borders. We may need a Neo-Westphalian approach, since such digital technologies cross borders and permeate national sovereignty with complete ease. A great example is the proposal by professor Gary Marcus to create a ‘CERN for AI’: “a global collaboration with thousands of researchers from over twenty countries, working together, in common cause, building technology and science that could never be constructed in individual labs, tackling problems that industry might otherwise neglect." This could be the best way to nip this other war in the bud.

Jaspreet Bindra is the chief tech whisperer at Findability Sciences, and learning AI, Ethics and Society at Cambridge University.

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