How the rivalry between China and the US is driving AI progress

By Hans Diels, futurist and geopolitical analyst at ETION.

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August 31, 2023

In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, few rivalries have ignited the same fervor and high-stakes tension as the race to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. In Christopher Nolan's cinematic masterpiece "Oppenheimer," we are granted a profound glimpse into how the German-American rivalry galvanized the development and deployment of the first nuclear bomb. As we leapfrog into the present day, a fresh and intense global competition has materialized, this time within the realm of artificial intelligence (AI). China and the United States stand as the prominent contenders in this new theater of dominance. Nolan himself artfully likened the nuclear arms race to the current AI race, with a hope that "Oppenheimer" might serve as a cautionary tale, urging those pioneering new technologies to meticulously consider potential unintended consequences. The film poignantly portrays Oppenheimer's retrospective remorse as the nuclear bomb's cataclysmic impact unfolds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Unstoppable March of Technological Innovation

The craft of storytelling in films is intrinsically tethered to human imagination and creativity. This is precisely why Nolan weaves the narrative of the Manhattan Project around the enigmatic persona of Robert J. Oppenheimer. However, it would be remiss to exaggerate Oppenheimer's individual role in unleashing the destructive capabilities of nuclear weaponry. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, elaborated on this concept in "What Technology Wants," drawing an analogy to technology's momentum as akin to an unstoppable locomotive, hurtling forward with an insatiable hunger for advancement. Kelly expounds that technology possesses an inherent vitality, propelling humanity toward innovation and evolution.

Attempting to rein in this unbridled momentum parallels the futility of persuading a grandparent to cease inundating you with Facebook game requests—an endeavor that remains profoundly unattainable. Once the foundational components of a new technological breakthrough emerge, it becomes a mere matter of time before a creative mind assembles them. This reality held true for nuclear energy and now mirrors the dynamic in the AI domain.

Neither regulatory frameworks nor the conscientiousness of inventors will arrest the march of AI progress. There will invariably exist intrepid AI enthusiasts who relentlessly forge ahead. Curiously, it might be simpler to influence independent innovators wielding an AI bomb rather than attempting to exert control through algorithms.

Geopolitical Imperatives and Their Impact

In both the historical context of the nuclear race and the present-day AI competition, a distinct catalyst propels technological evolution: geopolitical rivalry. Oppenheimer and his team were propelled into a scramble against cunning German physicists, driven by the palpable fear of adversaries harnessing the power of nuclear fission ahead of them. This existential pressure underscored the creation of a profoundly destructive weapon—the pertinent query being not if, but who would achieve this feat first. Geopolitical contestation injected a sense of haste, compelling technological progress without ample consideration of potential unintended consequences. Furthermore, once a nuclear bomb surfaced, eradicating its presence from the world became an insurmountable task. The notion of eradicating nuclear weapons falters in light of the unsettling prospect that an authoritarian leader, reminiscent of Kim Jong-un, could potentially amass their own bomb, thereby terrorizing the global community.

Fast-forward to our current juncture, and we are embroiled in yet another epochal confrontation. The battle for AI supremacy rages on between the United States and China, with each nation acutely aware that emerging victorious in this contest will confer substantial influence on the world stage. Imagine Superman and Batman locked in combat, albeit substituting punches with algorithms and neural networks.

A shared thread unites both competitions: the victor secures a pivotal position in global affairs. Economic growth, military prowess, and worldwide influence hang in the balance.

Similar to how Oppenheimer's team propelled the atomic bomb's creation with unwavering determination, AI advancements continue to surge forward at a relentless pace. These breakthroughs possess the potential to reshape our understanding. The victors of this race could potentially unlock capabilities that relegate contemporary technology to the status of an '80s Walkman.

Identifying the Forerunners

The question of who will ultimately seize victory in this new competition looms large. Succeeding in AI development hinges upon two critical factors: data and computational power—these are the twin engines propelling AI evolution.

Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of Google-China, posits that China might emerge as the preeminent AI superpower due to its substantial reservoir of data. The digital lives of China's 1.3 billion citizens foster an unparalleled data source.

In contrast, the United States wields an alternative form of superpower: the authority to control access to computational power. In the past, both China and the US operated on a level playing field, acquiring high-performance microchips essential for processing vast data. However, this equilibrium shifted as the US exercised control over strategic points in the semiconductor supply chain, hampering China's progress. Simultaneously[LVEn1] , China is accelerating its endeavors in advanced microchip development and production. Chris Miller, economic historian and the author of the enlightening "Chip War" predicts that China may struggle to bridge this gap within the next decade. Notably, a degree of uncertainty enshrouds this prognosis.

In Conclusion: The Nexus of Geopolitics and Technology

Geopolitical imperatives are propelling technological evolution with unprecedented vigor. This spectacle casts a spotlight on two superpowers locked in a determined pursuit of victory in the AI race, each armed with distinctive capabilities that could potentially grant them the upper hand. Nevertheless, the outcome remains uncertain for both sides. The rapid cadence of AI development and the ensuing geopolitical rivalry ensures that a host of unintended consequences may inevitably arise. These consequences, which the third contender—the European Union—seeks to address, present a formidable challenge. Yet, Europe faces an uphill battle to rectify the situation, as it finds itself trailing significantly behind the other contenders. Presently, Europe appears bereft of the superpower required to narrow the gap.

This newsletter article first appeared on Hans’ Substack Newsletter Political Disruption. Read that and more here.

Hans Diels
Hans Diels
Futurist and geopolitical analyst at ETION
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August 31, 2023