How AI will transform geopolitics … accelerating the rise of China, and enabling small companies to have super powers

February 12, 2020

In January 2018 China’s president, Xi Jinping made one of his frequent televised speeches on how his nation seeks to compete in a rapidly changing world order.

The rhetoric was normal, for a communist leader, however what stood out more, were two books about artificial intelligence on a bookshelf behind him.

Why are those books there? Maybe a bit like in 2015, when Russia “accidentally” aired designs for a new weapon, the books may not have been an accident.

The message was significant. For decades, China has been operating in an American-dominated world. To escape, China is turning to AI.

China’s AI Revolution

By 2030, China wants to be the world’s leading AI power, with an AI industry valued at $150 billion. How does China plan to achieve this?

Take healthcare. Ping An, a large Chinese conglomerate, has unveiled AI doctors. It has launched clinics known as “One-Minute Clinics” where AI doctors diagnose symptoms and propose medications. Within three years, Ping An plans to build hundreds of thousands of these clinics across China.

Could China export 10,000 AI doctors to Russia? Such a move would transform geopolitics.

The biggest impact is that it would shift the China-Russia relationship, from energy and currency, areas that the Amercans can influence, to Chinese AI, over which the USA has no control. The AI doctors may make Russian society more China-centric, and future generations in Russia may be more familiar with Ping An than with IBM or Intel.

Geopolitical and AI

How does this affect geopolitics, and the influence of nations?

First, labour movements, which have long been a variable of geopolitics (eg H1B tensions between the US and India, or treatment of Filipino maids in Middle East), would now revolve around the movements (and restrictions) of Chinese AI.

Second, China may, for the first time, create an ecosystem that the rest of the world depends on. The AI doctors may need to be programmed with local Russian regulations or health care rules, and Russian start-ups could emerge to fill this gap, or even to expand the role these AI doctors play. These Russian companies will be depending on a Chinese ecosystem, the same way American companies like Uber and Lyft depend on American ecosystems like app stores.

Lastly, the huge amounts of data that the AI doctors will be collecting could be used by China to help its businesses. Chinese pharmaceutical companies, for example, could know about a virus that is emerging in St. Petersburg, and they could quickly manufacture drugs to treat this virus. China would have insight into Russia in a way no other country has ever had, including the USA.

Technology makes geography irrelevant

Artificial intelligence is shifting the balance of power. While technologies like machine learning speed up the pace of the technological revolution and are on their way to fundamentally transforming life.

It has been said that a nation’s technological trajectory over the years has been determined by its geography and existing infrastructure in geospace. This is changing rapidly and being replaced by digital infrastructure, digital data and the rapidly evolving AI infrastructure, forcing us to re-evaluate whether geography still plays any relevant role in a nation’s trajectory.

As we see across nations, only a few countries have some sort of AI strategy (Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, EU Commission, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nordic-Baltic Region, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Tunisia, UAE, United Kingdom and the United States).

What about the remaining nations? What are the determining factors of when and whether a nation will adopt AI and how it will change their strategic course? Do they lack digital infrastructure, thought leadership, human resources, capital availability, education systems, social acceptance and a vision for the progress and development of AI for their respective nations?

Rising Stars of an AI World

Established metrics such as gross domestic product (GDP) can tell you at a glance which are the world’s largest economies. But, according to a new report by Tortoise Intelligence, they won’t tell you which ones are most likely to succeed in a new AI-driven world.

That prize is likely to go to the country, or countries, that are making the right strategic investments now. Those investments are focused on equipping their citizens, businesses and institutions with the tools, technology and training needed for AI.

The traditional champions are countries such as Canada, France, Germany and the UK. These are well-established, developed economies that have made good progress on AI. They’re determined not to miss out, but they will never compete with the two superpowers, USA and China.

The rising stars are an even more interesting collection. They won’t be found in the Top 10 of economies based on GDP. But they have a solid talent base and are demonstrating excellence in research. Singapore, Israel, Ireland and Finland are all in this group, along with Australia, Denmark and Switzerland.

These countries are likely to remain middle-ranking AI economies, but for some smaller nations like those in the Nordics, this could be an opportunity to leapfrog to a much higher spot in the global power league.

For some countries, there are infrastructure challenges that need to be addressed before a serious conversation can be had about their ability to take advantage of AI. These nascent economies – such as Kenya, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan – could be left further behind, or maybe a nation like China will fund their infrastructure in return for increased influence.

Perhaps the most interesting countries are those like India and the UAE, who have woken up to the opportunities of AI.

India has a large, well-educated middle class that is very tech-savvy, not to mention several multinational technology businesses. Building on those foundations means India’s AI prowess is likely to grow rapidly. While the UAE is the only country in the world to have both a national AI strategy and appointed an AI minister.