This article is the English version of : Nicolas Miailhe, « Géopolitique de l’Intelligence artificielle : le retour des empires ? », published in Politique étrangère, Vol. 83, Issue 3 , 2018.
“Artificial intelligence is the future… Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” declared Vladimir Putin, speaking before a group of Russian students and journalists in September 2017. Three days later, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, went even further in a tweet: “Competition for AI superiority at national level most likely cause of WW3 imo [in my opinion].”
The rapid progress of AI makes it a powerful tool from the economic, political, and military standpoints. Embedded in the digital revolution, AI will help determine the international order for decades to come, accentuating and accelerating the dynamics of an old cycle in which technology and power reinforce one another. It will transform certain axioms of geopolitics through new relations between territories, space-time dimensions, and immateriality.
The American and Chinese digital empires will probably dominate international geopolitics in the years to come. If Europe wants to rebuild its digital sovereignty, it will have to redouble its efforts and investments. Otherwise, Europe will have to be satisfied with strategic alliances that entail its “cyber-vassalization.” As for Africa, it already presents a vast battleground, clearly threatened with “cyber-colonization.”
What is Artificiel Intelligence?
AI does not have a universally accepted definition. Although it is firmly rooted in the field of computing and was consubstantial with its emergence in the 1940s, today it refers to a broad range of disciplines, technologies, and methods. The co-author of the textbook Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, Stuart Russell, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, defines AI as “the study of methods for making computers behave intelligently.” For him, AI includes tasks such as learning, reasoning, planning, perception, language understanding, and robotics.
AI is thus a more generic term than it seems: in fact, it is a collective imaginary onto which we project our hopes and our fears. The technologies of AI include, among others, machine learning, computer vision, intelligent robotics, biometrics, swarm intelligence, virtual agents, natural language processing, and semantic technology. These technologies are of course not mutually exclusive.
AI and the return of empires
Can we, at present, analyze the rise to power of what could be called “digital empires?” These are the result of an association between multinationals, supported or controlled to varying degrees by the states that financed the development of the technoscientific bases on which these companies could innovate and thrive.
Historically, empires have been characterized by three principal features: 1) the exercise of power over a wide territory; 2) a relative inequality between the central power and the administered “regions,” often associated with a will to expand; 3) the implementation of a political project through various forms of influence (economic, institutional, and ideological).
Contrary to the common notion according to which the digital revolution necessarily involves economic decentralization, it is actually possible that AI may cause, or reinforce, an overall trend toward the centralization of power in the hands of a few actors. These digital empires would benefit from economies of scale and the acceleration of their concentration of power in the economic, military, and political fields thanks to AI. They would become the major poles governing the totality of international affairs, returning to a “logic of blocs.” These new public-private digital empires would extend to the continental scale, especially in the case of the American and Chinese empires, while other actors, such as Europe, would adopt strategies of non-alignment. […]
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