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AI a potential game-changer in international relations

FENG SHUAI | 2018-07-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Sophia, an emotionally expressive humanoid robot and a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, raises concerns on ethics and the fate of humanity. (VCG)

Though research on artificial intelligence (AI) in the modern sense can be traced back to the 1940s, the real breakthrough came around 2010, when advances in hardware made the next generation of computers much faster and more capable of processing information. Led by deep learning, the development of AI technology will eventually bring human society into an era of narrow AI.

The important achievements of this round of AI technology consist of three basic elements: the rapid development of hardware equipment, the accumulation of big data and breakthroughs in deep-learning algorithms. From the current standpoint, in the era of narrow AI, the progress of AI driven by deep learning will have an impact on the international system on three levels.


Profound impact
First of all, some AI technology can be directly applied to particular issues in the field of international relations, changing the power balance among various actors and bringing uncertainties to the international system. At present, the application of new technology is mainly concentrated in the civil field, where economic benefits are higher, while its role in the study of international politics has yet to play out. However, in the strategic decision auxiliary system and intelligent military system, AI has become an active participant in international political activity. It is not hard to imagine that eventually technological gap among nations will exert an irreversible influence on national power.

From an institutional point of view, the extensive application of AI technology will have a profound impact on the economic development model of modern society, reshaping the relationship between capital and labor force in the world economic system, thus promoting the evolution of national governance and power allocation and ultimately affecting the stability of the international system.

All areas of progress in AI technology indeed move toward a common goal—machine replacement of human labor, which means the rapid expansion of capital in the economic system and the weakening of labor forces. With the aid of new technology, the global economic system is likely to undergo a structural adjustment. Changes in socioeconomic conditions will directly affect the stability of the existing political system, which in turn requires major adjustments to cater to the new economic situation. The changes in the global economy and governance system will eventually lead to the profound transformation of the existing international system.

Third, the influence of technological change across the era will gradually extend to cover the entirety of social life, and finally be reflected in the narratives of political and social discourse. These ideas will in turn affect international relations and domestic governance. In the face of the rapid development of AI technology in recent years, human society is entering a stage of ideological confusion.

On the one hand, the world is assiduously pursuing the progress of AI technology. On the other hand, it is constantly worried about the potential of AI to negatively impact the future of human civilization. The values and ideologies of human society are under pressure of restructuring in the narrow AI era, due to cognitive differences among different fields and disciplines. It is certain that conflicting ideas will exist for a long time. Therefore, reconstructing human society’s ideologies and value standards will be an important area for the application of social science research to the issue of AI.


Widening gap
AI is currently being applied in two major domains: strategic planning and military systems. Since strategic decision-making and military security are fundamental to national interests, all countries hope to improve their ability in these two areas to gain the upper hand in international relations.

In addition, these two fields have relatively clear objectives, a clear distinction between friend and foe, and an abundance of data, satisfying the objective requirements for the application of deep learning algorithms. As a result, these two fields act as the bridge between AI and international relations. They are becoming the primary area for new technologies to intervene in international relations in the narrow AI era.

However, history tells us that the emergence of any scientific and technological revolution will further widen the power gap between the early and late adopters. As the most effective power amplifier in human history, AI has the potential to outrun human intelligence and development in strategic planning, military strategy and other important areas of international relations, and this gap is hard to make up with quantity or tactical advantages.

In the end, it is nearly impossible for those who do not possess AI assistance to defeat rivals who do, making the power disparities among international players more entrenched.

At the same time, AI will force countries that used it earlier to push for organizational reform in related areas. The systematic difference among actors in terms of technology and institutional arrangement will become more apparent, by which time developing countries may face harsher international competition.

By all means, the development of AI technology will result in a more unequal world. Widening the power gap between traditional international actors will threaten the stability of an international system built on the principles of sovereign equality.


Systemic influence
Today, the demographic dividend is likely to become a “bad asset” under the new economic model. In this case, global capital and talent will flow to developed nations with technological advantage, leaving few opportunities for developing countries to embark on a path to modernization. Along with the socioeconomic structural adjustment, the power of capital will also expand rapidly in the political system, impacting the modern political system that is based on traditional industrial production. This will eventually be fully reflected in the distribution of international political power.

In the narrow AI era, traditional political power is still the most important source of power within countries, but the expansion of capital and technological power will stir major changes in the internal distribution of power. Through long-term investment and technological research and development, large enterprises can more economically and effectively undertake the function of supplying public goods in many fields and making profit.

Under the new economic conditions, maintaining the old pattern of supplying public goods is costly. Therefore, in economic and social governance, the traditional political power’s control of the nation-state, to a certain extent, will be transferred to the capital power, which provides public products and makes full use of its advantage in data and technical services in its administration.

However, the traditional political power will further emphasize absolute jurisdiction in military, security and finance, and it will put a cap on capital power expansion. At the same time, political power and capital power also have to accept the existence of technology power. While taking advantage of it to promote production, the political power will resort to various means to limit the expansion of its influence.

In a sense, reforms to the international system are actually the natural extension of domestic power distribution in a wider space. In the new stage of the international system, the power of capital and technology will get legal status as international bodies, and their interactions will be incorporated into the international system, forming a complex international environment with multiple actors and pluralistic rules and relations.


Revolution on ideas
Finally, the conflict of ideas can be characterized as a confrontation between conservatism and progressivism. As a new round of industrial revolution takes off, AI technology has demonstrated the potential to disrupt the traditional mode of social production and cause universal unemployment, which not only promotes material and institutional change, but also has profound influence on people’s thought.

Amid dramatic change and turmoil, new ideas will emerge, hoping to provide powerful explanations and solutions to the common problems of humanity, forming the social ideological trends of the era and changing national power distribution as well as the international system.

In essence, the revolution of ideas is to discover the inner connection between humans and AI technology. Going forward, creating a more stable, reasonable system that reflects human civilization and dignity in a changing and more unequal world will be the theme of international relations research.


Feng Shuai is from the Center for International Strategic Studies under the Shanghai Institute of International Studies.

(edited by YANG XUE)