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on geopolitics

Aug 2, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

12 mins read

AI and the Return of Great Power Competition

VP of Global Analysis, Stratfor
Reva Goujon
VP of Global Analysis, Stratfor
The Chinese and U.S. flags are seen during a promotional event in Beijing on June 30, 2017.
(FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Aging demographics and an emerging great power competition pitting China against the United States form the backdrop to a high-stakes race in artificial intelligence development.
  • The United States, for now, has a lead overall in AI development, but China is moving aggressively to try and overtake its American rivals by 2030.
  • While deep integration across tech supply chains and markets has occurred in the past couple of decades, rising economic nationalism and a growing battle over international standards will balkanize the global tech sector.
  • AI advancements will boost productivity and economic growth, but creative destruction in the workforce will drive political angst in much of the world, putting China's digital authoritarianism model as well as liberal democracies to the test.

For better or worse, the advancement and diffusion of artificial intelligence technology will come to define this century. Whether that statement should fill your soul with terror or delight remains a matter of intense debate. Techno-idealists and doomsdayers will paint their respective utopian and dystopian visions of machine-kind, making the leap from what we know now as "narrow AI" to "general AI" to surpass human cognition within our lifetime. On the opposite end of the spectrum, yawning skeptics will point to Siri's slow intellect and the human instinct of Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger – the pilot of the US Airways flight that successfully landed on the Hudson River in 2009 – to wave off AI chatter as a heap of hype not worth losing sleep over.

The fact is that the development of AI – a catch-all term that encompasses neural networks and machine learning and deep learning technologies – has the potential to fundamentally transform civilian and military life in the coming decades. Regardless of whether you're a businessperson pondering your next investment, an entrepreneur eyeing an emerging opportunity, a policymaker grappling with regulation or simply a citizen operating in an increasingly tech-driven society, AI is a global force that demands your attention. 

The Big Picture

As Stratfor wrote in its 2018 Third-Quarter Forecast, the world is muddling through a blurry transition from the post-Cold War world to an emerging era of great power competition. The race to dominate AI development will be a defining feature of U.S.-China rivalry.

An Unstoppable Force

Willingly or not, even the deepest skeptics are feeding the AI force nearly every minute of every day. Every Google (or Baidu) search, Twitter (or Weibo) post, Facebook (or Tencent) ad and Amazon (or Alibaba) pu