The first film I remember watching is an old kids’ movie called Short Circuit, all about a military robot called Johnny 5 who escapes from an army base and ends up getting into comic adventures in New York.
It’s hardly a classic, but when I come to think of it, lots of the films that stick in my memory from childhood are about artificial intelligence in some way or another.
There’s D.A.R.Y.L., about a boy who turns out to be a super-smart machine and gets into all kinds of adventures (D.A.R.Y.L. stands for “data analysing robot youth life form” — naturally).
Or how about the misogynistic Weird Science, in which two geeks design their perfect woman on a computer and she ends up coming to life in their bedroom? There’s no way that idea would get made in the #MeToo era, thankfully.
AI is all about building intelligent machines which are able do things only humans can currently do, so it’s easy to see why this subject has been inspiring storytellers for decades, whether it’s killer robots in The Terminator or questions of consciousness in Isaac Asimov’s novels.
In Intelligent London last time we looked at how AI might affect the jobs we do as computers get smarter, and what government needs to do to invest in education to help people as traditional jobs get replaced by software or machines.
This week we’re going to examine the AI arms race, and how different countries are battling for supremacy in this new technological field. We’ll also be looking at why it matters who wins, and the potential impact on geopolitics and economics.
Let’s start with AI and geopolitics. It’s a weighty academic subject, so where better to start than a blockbuster?
There’s a bit in the original Iron Man movie when the technology genius Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jnr) has been captured by guys from the Middle East who want him to build them a super-powerful missile.
The lead henchman understands there’s a strong relationship between leadership in technology and military strength. “The bow and arrow once was the pinnacle of weapons technology. It allowed the great Genghis Khan to rule from the Pacific to the Ukraine. But today, whoever holds the latest weapons rules these lands,” he says.
It’s pretty much the same insight that explains why the American and Chinese governments are battling for supremacy in the AI field, because the winner may have an edge when it comes to autonomous robots and missiles, new cyber-warfare capabilities and weapons.
The Chinese government has announced a hugely ambitious plan for its own AI to match anything developed in the West by 2020, and to be the world leader in AI — including military technology — by 2030.
To make this happen, China is investing billions of pounds, building technology parks dedicated solely to AI and putting the full weight of government behind the task. American military leaders are worried.
“This is our Sputnik moment,” said a former US deputy secretary of defense who has worked on AI policy for the military. He’s referring to the shock the Americans felt in the late 1950s when they realised the Russians were ahead of them in the space race, with potentially huge implications for warfare and international relations.
In the race for AI leadership the Americans aren’t standing still. According to its unclassified 2017 budget, the Pentagon spent around $7.5 billion on AI, up from $5.5 billion in 2012.
But this isn’t just a contest between the US and China. Russia has announced a focus on using AI to build new weapons, with the aim to have 30 per cent of its military operating autonomously on the battlefield.
Of course, AI won’t only be used to transform military capabilities — experts agree it could also have a major economic impact by transforming old industries and opening up new opportunities for wealth-creation and investment. That means whichever country is in the lead on AI could see big economic advantages. You find this in London right now, where companies such as DeepMind are leading the world in AI research and development.
Thanks to this leadership, the UK’s AI sector is growing faster than the US or Canada’s, says recruitment company Indeed, meaning lots of new highly paid jobs.
Given the economic stakes involved, other countries are pulling out all the stops to get out in front. In America, Donald Trump’s administration has launched a new task force to push forward an “America first” approach to AI, ensuring it stays ahead of the pack. The Canadian government is cleverly using its immigration policies to attract top AI researchers and investing in new facilities to bring together academics and industry to drive new innovations.
India is also taking action. Its government is concerned that unless the country leans in, it could lose out from AI because it might lead to well-paid jobs being replaced.
As the former CEO of Infosys, the giant Indian IT company, puts it: “If we sit still there is no doubt that our jobs are going to be wiped out by AI... unless we continue to evolve ourselves.”
But again, many experts agree that it’s China which is pushing hardest and fastest to come out on top. Last year Chinese AI start-ups received more investment than their US counterparts, and since 2015 Chinese companies such as SenseTime have published more academic papers at top AI conferences than US corporates like Google or Facebook.
As the influential MIT Technology Review stated recently: “China’s prowess in the [AI] field will help fortify its position as the dominant economic power in the world.”
If leadership in AI could give nations an edge when it comes to military might and economic clout, there’s one more consequence: countries that are ahead may get to define the laws and rules that govern this emerging field. This was the case with the internet, which was developed in America and, as a result, US protocols and norms have come to be seen as the global standard.
This plays out in the AI realm today, with the founders of DeepMindplaying an important leadership role in setting out the ethical boundaries of this new area.
But what if other countries stole a march on us? According to Jeffrey Ding of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, the Chinese government sees AI “as not only about competitiveness for their companies, but also as a way to go from being a follower to setting the pace. I think this is the first technology area where China has a real chance to set the rules.”
Whether it’s geopolitics, economics or ethics, experts are clear that whoever wins the AI race will see big benefits right across the board. Who will come out on top? It’s going to be fascinating to watch the race play out.