Winner of AI race will determine leader of 21st century: expert

A race is under way between the United States, China and Russia to develop and employ the most promising emerging technologies. (Photo: US Air Force/Facebook)

In the age of artificial intelligence, covert quantum computing programs could be the ultimate wildcard in the technological race led by China and the United States, says University of Waikato lecturer Reuben Steff.

What is artificial intelligence, and what does its rise mean for New Zealand?

Reuben Steff: Artificial Intelligence is “intelligence” demonstrated by machines. In terms of the level of intelligence AI can demonstrate, we can think of it at sitting along a spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum, there is “weak” AI that focuses on narrowly-applied tasks. Weak AI can outstrip the capabilities of humans in assigned tasks: AI can beat humans at chess, and hedge funds that use machine learning can trade faster and better than humans on the stock exchange. At the other end of the spectrum, there is “strong” AI. In theory, if  and some say when  it is created, strong AI will involve machines that are as intelligent and creative as human beings.

AI is considered the most broadly disruptive emerging technology. It will converge with, and accelerate, existing technologies and new emerging ones across the fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology and manufacturing.

A key issue in the AI era is the tension between our personal data and the value we place on personal privacy. Growing awareness that consumers are often unknowingly giving away their data to businesses could lead to moves to limit data collection. For example, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation restricts businesses’ use of data that comes from EU citizens. Should these concerns become widespread, it could hinder future economic growth in the Western world at a time when major economic competitors, such as China, have no cultural compunction over gathering and using an individual’s private data.

In a future economy where data is the major fuel of AI – and individual data is the richest form of fuel – New Zealanders may have to consider if they are willing to give up more of their privacy for greater prosperity.

Factory worker

As AI makes more inroads into the economy, it will first replace the more mundane and basic jobs, says Reuben Steff.

What impact will advances in AI have on the labour force in the Asia region?

In the decades to come, China will face a major demographic crunch as the number of senior citizens relative to the working-age population increases significantly. As such, the productivity of individual workers in China will need to increase, with AI essential in achieving this.

As AI makes more inroads into the economy, it will first replace the more mundane and basic jobs in Asia as well as the rest of the world. Effective government policy will be needed to redirect and retrain workers for more productive jobs at the same time AI opens up entirely new sectors for workers to enter into.

Some nations – those that are taking AI into consideration now and preparing their education programmes and infrastructure for it – will be better placed to deal with this than others. They will need to transition many workers into new parts of the economy.

Nations unprepared could face dramatic increases in inequality and social upheaval if people who lose their jobs are unable to find new ones. Trust in government could be undermined and, as seen in recent years, this could provide openings for radical political movements and populists that harness widespread anger for their own political purposes.

Emerging tech, especially AI, is said to be a field that would determine if China or the US ‘reigns supreme’ in the 21st century. What are the implications?

A race is under way between the United States, China and Russia to develop and employ the most promising emerging technologies. Vladimir Putin has said that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere (AI) will become the ruler of the world”.

China is making massive investments in its tech sector and announced an official plan for the nation to become “the world's primary AI innovation centre” by 2030. The US has sought to better direct and harness its emerging technologies, first through the Third Offset Strategy, and more recently, by creating a Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) programme, which seeks to leverage high-tech expertise in the private sector for its military.

All three states are believed to have covert quantum computing programs, which could be the ultimate technological wildcard. Quantum computers will allow computers to undertake a vast number of calculations simultaneously, in order to sift through streams of global data – including potentially encrypted data – affording states that develop them first an unprecedented ability to monitor global interactions and positioning. The implications for strategic stability could be momentous.

Ultimately, the US and China lead the world in this new technological arms race, and it’s an open question whether the more decentralised American system, or the more hierarchical and directed PRC structure will be able to gain an advantage.

Is there any potential for New Zealand to become a player in the AI market? If not, what would it take for us to get there?

Unlike past industrial revolutions, when states like New Zealand had to import new technologies over vast distances, AI will be more readily available for purchase almost immediately on the international market. There is no reason why New Zealand could not become a world leader in AI applications, as it will not require a massive industrial base to develop. Some of the most innovative AI companies in the US consist of teams of only a few people.

Are we there yet? No, but there are efforts underway to drive us in the right direction. A key aspect will be attracting AI talent from offshore. Given New Zealand’s high standard of living and relatively stable political system, we have good prospects for promoting ourselves to top-level AI talent. 

Ultimately, an effective AI strategy will need to extend beyond rhetoric. It will require the New Zealand government, private sector and academic community to work together to ensure robust investment in R&D and into understanding the implications of AI for national and international security. We will need to create an educational curriculum that includes an AI component, and prepare communities across the country for AI to play an ever-larger role in their day-to-day lives.

Dr Reuben Steff teaches New Zealand foreign policy, international relations and security studies at the University of Waikato. Prior to becoming a lecturer, he spent two-and-a-half years in the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade working on international security and strategic policy. He blogs about New Zealand foreign policy and emerging technologies at The Kiwi Strategist.

– Asia Media Centre