In 2017, at the start of the school year in Russia, President Vladimir Putin famously declared that “whoever becomes the leader in this [artificial intelligence] sphere will become the ruler of the world.” It wasn’t an over the top declaration. In fact, if we pay attention to the investments and policies of superpowers and emerging powers alike, the evidence is there that we have entered a new geopolitical kind of struggle, the kind that will play out both in the physical and the digital realm.
Who is emerging as a winner or loser of this new race?
This question was the focus of a recent panel I participated in at the annual WORLDWEBFORUM, whose theme this year was “Master or Servant”. The panel featured perspectives by experts from China, the United States, Japan, and the European Union who debated the new digital battles for dominance in AI. Despite some argument on which battles we can even have (will social media destroy our minds and can we even do anything about it?) the consensus was that there is an undeniable power-play between the U.S. and China when it comes to AI. And other countries are following suit, hoping for their strategic advantage. But unlike the race to land first on the moon, the one for AI dominance is much more complex.
Who will emerge victorious in this—now literal—arms race? First, here is the graphic truth. Seventy-six of the world’s top AI startups were American born in 2018; only six were Chinese. But that’s about the only area America has an edge in this contest. As reported by Signal: “China has greater access to important types of data and is investing heavily to catch up elsewhere.”
China in the spotlight
In 2017, the government of China put out its plan to lead the world in Artificial Intelligence by 2030. According to Eric Schmidt “it’s pretty simple. By 2020, they will have caught up. By 2025, they will be better than us. By 2030, they will dominate the industries of AI.”
And the numbers don’t lie, says Peter Diamandis: “PricewaterhouseCoopers recently projected AI’s deployment will add $15.7 trillion to the global GDP by 2030, with China taking home $7 trillion of that total, dwarfing North America’s $3.7 trillion in gains.”
It’s common to read about China and the U.S. as being in competition. What started with the “Tariff Wars” has moved to the digital realm. President Trump’s recent executive order laid out a bold vision for how to make America number one in artificial intelligence, a move aimed at China’s rise in this competition and perhaps the beginning of a response. However, critics say it’s light where it matters.
Everything except money
The “American AI Initiative” has arrived two years after the Chinese plan, and later than several other countries (18 countries—from India to Australia—have launched national AI strategies in the past couple of years). This is important. Half the countries that declared AI initiatives have committed new funding, China has committed tens of billions of dollars, but the U.S. has yet to allocate specific funds. Indeed, the U.S. has put out plenty of research and reports, but so far it has only asked federal agencies to prioritize existing funds towards AI projects; it has not committed new funds. The critics are unanimous: the U.S. is prioritizing but not exactly funding AI, and that’s the real national emergency.
An AI arms race
It won’t be long before the AI race becomes an actual arms race. A new report from the Center for New American Security details the views of Chinese leadership vis-à-vis AI, and they are not limited to the economic realm. The report gives an insider’s view of China’s AI strategy as it pertains to its military ambitions.
The key takeaway: military use of AI (and other technologies) is central to China’s overall AI strategy. Chinese leaders don’t want to depend on Western technology anymore and see AI as a way to catch up with rival nations.
In the United States, the Department of Defense has been investing on “intelligent machines” since the 1960s and that funding played a key role in establishing what we now know as Artificial Intelligence. Now, the Pentagon is calling for fast adoption of AI in all aspects of the U.S. military. A day after the announcement of the “American AI Initiative” by the White House, DOD announced its own unclassified version of its AI strategy.
At a news briefing on the day of the launch, Dana Deasy, DOD’s Chief Information Officer said: “Russian and Chinese investments in military AI technology heighten the need for U.S. forces to use more AI, too. We must adopt AI to maintain our strategic position and prevail on future battlefields.”
What about the rest of the world?
Governments worldwide have responded to the economic and military promises of AI through new national strategies to drive growth and competitiveness. A November 2018 report by Canadian-based CIFAR surveyed the current landscape and found that 18 nations have released AI strategies, of which nine are fully funded and outline specific policies, and nine are guiding documents that present objectives guiding future policies.
Not all of the world’s nations can afford the luxury to invest in AI and enter the race, but according to Yuval Noah Harari they can’t afford not to. In a recent editorial, the author of “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” said “all countries, regardless of whether they are tech superpowers or not, will feel the effects of the AI revolution.”
Beyond the future economic and future military objectives surrounding AI, there is an even more important dimension: the future of life itself. According to Harari “The combination of AI and biotechnology will be critical for any future attempts to redesign bodies, brains, and minds. Elites in the United States and China who have access to those technologies could determine the course of evolution for everyone, according to their particular values and interests.”
Will diplomacy prevail?
Humanity survived the Cold War and its flirtation with mutually assured destruction (MAD) through good old-fashioned (track one and track two) diplomacy. Indeed, while the AI race has both economic and military dimensions, the future of our society will depend on cooperation and diplomacy. At least, this was the sentiment at the inaugural U.S.-China AI Tech Summit in Half Moon Bay last summer. The organizers, led by Silicon Valley-based AI Alliance, a non-profit that convenes tech executives and policymakers in the global AI community to cooperate on initiatives.
The plan is for many more of these forums and summits in the coming year. “Ultimately, no single meeting can address the gravity and scope of the challenges we face,” said Helen Liang, Managing Partner of FoundersX Ventures and the Co-President of the AI Alliance in her opening remarks. But this sort of gathering can build bridges of understanding between the world’s AI superpowers.
From healthcare to transportation, the dimensions of AI are limitless and the opportunities for collaboration on all these sectors are the “soft” diplomacy we need. The alternative: a full blow AI war, is the kind of dystopian future no one will survive from.
About the author: Ana C. Rold teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.
But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?
Let’s start with gold.
Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.
In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.
It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.
And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.
It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.
We’ve already agreed.
Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.
Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.
In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.
Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.
This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.
But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently. Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.
Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?
We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.
What if education was a new gold standard?
And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?
Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.
By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?
Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.
Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.
These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.
“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.” —George Washington