A familiar story has been written in recent years: Great-power competition, once seen by some as a thing of the past, has resurfaced, this time between the United States and China. This competition, which spans military, economic, diplomatic and political fields, is about the nature of the world order and the values on which it is built.
An important chapter in this story concerns technology. The fourth industrial revolution, embodied in the full range of innovations in artificial intelligence (AI), quantum science applications, biotechnology and the like, is increasingly viewed as a the Place of great power competition. New technologies are often seen as the key to gaining the edge in this competition, for example in military affairs or geopolitics. Some suggest enshrining both democratic values and technological superiority through an alliance of techno-democracies, while both are threatened by an authoritarian China.
The gist of this story is correct – a contest between great powers and a contest for world order is occurs between the United States and China.
But few – even those who agree on the extent to which technology affects the trajectory of great power competition – have recognized the secondary challenge these technologies pose: new technologies pose an existential challenge to society distinctiveness and uniqueness by individuals.
With this threat to the meaningful expression of human individuality comes a threat to the legitimacy of liberal values that celebrate the free, creative powers of the individual and their legitimate desire for self-government and freedom of thought and expression. Why bother with these lofty ideals when technology seems to be actively disempowering people?
This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, it will occur in democratic societies that see precisely these technologies as key to defeating authoritarian great power opponents. This paradox can define the new technological age as well as the struggle between liberal and authoritarian values.
Mohammed Soliman, director of the Cyber Security and Emerging Technology Program at the Middle East Institute, recently stated in the national interests that technology “where national interests, human progress, education, innovation, culture and economic development converge”. It is this convergence that allows technology to affect geopolitics. China’s technological ambitions — codified in policies like Made in China 2025 and its New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan — reflect a belief that emerging technologies and high-tech manufacturing are key to the 21st century, fueled in part by the achievements by AIs like AlphaGo.
These technologies are being used systematically to implement China’s authoritarian system of government. They enable mass and targeted surveillance and are exported by China to like-minded countries to replicate these practices abroad, effectively promoting authoritarian values of international social control.
Officials of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have debated whether AI will allow warfare to evolve into a new phase of “intelligence,” where military modernization will place greater emphasis on AI-enabled military technology and autonomous systems in combat, which perhaps more conducive to “the PLA’s distinctive culture of strategy, command and organization.” The role of new technologies in a possible war over Taiwan remains in focus. Taken together, these factors suggest that China is developing emerging technologies with authoritarian aspirations and actively seeking to make a “world safe for autocracy.”
Here enters Jared Cohen’s and Richard Fontaine’s suggestion that a group of democracies called the T-12 coordinate multilateral technology policies to enshrine the values of liberal states while they are under attack. Subsequent calls from Ilan Goldenberg and Martijn Rasser focus on aligning strategic perspectives on China, harmonizing regulatory regimes for investments and export controls, and deepening technological and economic cooperation.
The great power struggle is here, and technology is its guiding light. But is the authoritarian use of emerging technologies by great power competitors the only threat that fourth industrial revolution technologies pose to democracy and liberal values?
The History of Technologists
While it is well known that the use of technology, such as cyberattacks, threatens democracy, these are not the threats to liberal values that I am emphasizing here.
Rather, there have been technological breakthroughs in recent years that, regardless of their merits or shortcomings, have inspired awe or fear. These lay the groundwork for an imminent challenge to individuality that democratic citizens will only tolerate, not confront.
Here, particularly in the area of AI, some have made their own history, one that could begin with the debut of the grand language model GPT-3 (although one could go further back to AlphaGo). GPT-3 caused quite a stir for its ability to write everything from songs to essays in a human-like manner. A representative example comes in in a September 2020 essay The guard “written” by GPT-3 itself. In June 2022, when fellow Googler Blaise Agüera y Arcas discussed another large language model, LaMDA, he suggested “AI is entering a new era” and is moving toward “consciousness “. The debuts of these models were turning points in technological existentialism.
Based on the successes of these language models, OpenAI developed the text-to-image generators DALL-E and DALL-E 2, which take users’ input phrases and turn them into what can be called AI-generated works of art. Meta’s text-to-video soon followed. These sparked another outburst of technological existentialism. This time, the old maxim that new technologies would make human, manual labor redundant was turned on its head, as the individuality of Artist appeared threatened
AI is just an emerging technology, although it has a lot to offer. Gene editing and synthetic biology have their own implications for individual meaning. The ability to edit human genes – although currently severely limited – will pose another threat to individual distinctiveness, playing directly with human nature rather than indirectly via potential competitors such as AI systems.
Even the seemingly innocuous Internet of Things and the construction of “intelligent systems” obliterate the human need for “perception, dexterity and flexibility,” as Professor Shuo-Yan Chou notes. The threat to liberalism lies in the perception of individuals as smaller parts of a larger whole.
In all of this there is a challenge that is deceptively real packaged as a promise: After the “economic disruptions” caused by emerging technologies, life becomes streamlined, comfortable and manageable.
The technological paradox
These examples are microcosms of what to expect if technology continues to be either created or valued in the image of human ability or value, however accurate. These sporadic outbursts of awe, fear, and frustration, only tempered until the next technological breakthrough, are largely confined to technology — for now niche circles. But that won’t last forever.
As the United States, its allies, and China both view the fourth industrial revolution as the direct route to dominating the 21st century, both will strive for dominance in the research, development, and regulation of these technologies. For example, as the United States and other democracies impose restrictions on biometrics and facial recognition systems (as opposed to Chinese surveillance techniques), these countries will all see the proliferation of advanced technologies and their rapid integration into their daily lives.
The real paradox of great technological power competition is this: as this proliferation takes place, and as these examples of AI demonstrations move from microcosms of existentialism to larger scales, the power of individual creativity and meaning, and the value of being able to freely express them, will increase challenged. This should be viewed as a potential form of ‘societal disruption’.
However, some argue that humans and machines may instead act as “collaborators, not competitors.” Rather than envisioning a competition between AI and humans, economist and technology scholar Erik Brynjolfsson believes “shifting our focus to ways AI can work with humans will spur innovation and productivity while unlocking economic benefits for all.” However, this argument misses the point.
Emerging technologies don’t have to reach the fullest, loftiest potential that advocates of the fourth industrial revolution like Klaus Schwab see (and critics like researcher Alexander Trauth-Goik see as business-oriented, linear timelines of technological innovation) for them to threaten individuality and liberal values.
The problem is two-sided. First, individuals perceive These technologies are changing the uniqueness of human abilities – so Lee Sedol, defeated by AI AlphaGo, withdrew with his grim admission that “even if I become number one, there is one entity that cannot be defeated”. AlphaGo doesn’t actually need to possess human-like intelligence, but currently it does perceived Right this way.
Second, as individuals perceive this assault on human distinctiveness, they are being told that once the economic dust settles, life will be longer, healthier, more efficient, and freer because of these technologies. But that may no longer be desirable for them.
Earlier I pointed to the work of Galileo and Newton as emblematic of a remarkable shift in the relationship between man and nature as a reference point for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Why? Not so that we can all become experts in physics or philosophy, but to emphasize that the current paradox is not just an intellectual problem; it is also a human one. We cannot intellectualize our way out of social instability and threats to the legitimacy of liberal values.