Mastery of technology is a critical component of national power.

We’ve often failed to fully appreciate its worth, taking for granted Western leadership in tech development, the subsequent profit from its benefits and believing that its most important strategic contribution was enabling or amplifying military capability.

Those assumptions need updating — and fast. As the world enters the fourth industrial revolution and Society 5.0 (or whatever we call it) emerges, we need a more fulsome understanding of technology, the role it plays and ways to ensure that it empowers, rather than constrains or diminishes, us as human beings.

There are lots of ways that our thinking about technology is flawed, but perhaps the most dangerous mistake is a failure to recognize how the next generation of technologies works. The essence of the digital revolution, which Is driving and being driven by emerging technologies, is connectivity, in the usual “Facebook-y” meaning but also in a second way: Core components of this new ecosystem depend upon each other.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) highlighted this phenomenon in its last Global Trends report, noting that, “The convergence of seemingly unrelated areas of scientific research and technological applications is making the rapid development of novel applications possible, practical and useful.”

As one example, the NIC analysis notes that “materials and manufacturing are inextricably linked in a longstanding virtuous cycle… which most likely will be accelerated by convergent increases in high performance computing, materials modeling, artificial intelligence (AI), and biomaterials.”

Similarly, the combination of 5G hardware, the data created and supplied by billions of sensors, devices and connections, and the AI that can sort and analyze it all in real time, will create a new and different world. AI is the key: The ability to sift through data at higher speeds and with greater discernment (if done properly — a big if and a subject for another column) will accelerate advances in every field. When we can think faster, we can do things faster and in a world that rewards first movers (in many but not all cases) that speed will separate winners from losers.

The NIC warns that technological development and advancement isn’t linear or predictable, but “some technological areas appear to offer the potential for transformative change… advances in these areas will combine with other technologies, such as energy storage, to shape societies, economies and perhaps even the nature of power.” In other words, to call these “critical technologies” is no hyperbole.

In an intriguing new study, Matthew Daniels and Ben Chang of the Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), examined the way that AI could transform our understanding of national power. For them, important innovations change thinking about power in three ways: They introduce new elements of power, they change the importance of existing elements of power and they can alter states’ immediate goals. They use AI to make that case.

A digital world will demand massive amounts of computing power (what Daniels and Chang call “compute”) and the countries that have this resource and can provide it to others will have more influence in international affairs. As they explain, “compute resources can flow more easily than many tradable goods. As computing infrastructure continues to grow, new ways of sharing access to large regionally concentrated quantities of compute, including space internet constellations may create new opportunities and incentives for international partnerships.”

In the second case, AI can change the value of previously recognized elements of national power. It can reduce the weight of demographic considerations by decreasing the amount of labor needed to maintain a military’s operational capacity, perhaps even in combat. The spread of highly accurate machine translations will reduce the cost of access to state of the art science.

AI tools will be force multipliers for countries with the deepest reservoirs of the best scientists and engineers, a trend that is “likely to deepen the advantages of nations that can host, or attract, a disproportionate fraction of the world’s best in those fields.”

In the third case, AI can change the way that states pursue their ultimate objectives. Just as trade diminished the need to conquer states to obtain wealth or resources, AI can transform the ways that states compete or fight. It can make social control more efficient and less expensive, making it easier to sustain authoritarian systems.

Similar efficiencies can prop up managed economies that might have once collapsed under the weight of their own flaws. AI can lower the cost of information warfare and make it easier to change what an adversary wants, lowering resistance or altering perceptions of facts. “In the context of international competition, leveraging target states’ national priorities or political stability through information warfare would represent ‘winning without fighting’ par excellence.”

This shift in the nature of power isn’t without precedent. Global communications networks provided transparency and insight into the way various countries and their political systems worked (or didn’t), a visibility that celebrated successes and exposed flaws. This yielded what is known as soft power. Those networks also facilitated proliferation of global production networks, another source of power and influence. Both developments are, at their foundation, products of technological innovation.

If innovation is again altering the nature of competition between states, then we’ve got to update our policies accordingly. The Trump administration woke up to this threat. What it couldn’t articulate was a coherent response. One problem was the framework to control access to technology was based on “dual use” — if a technology had a military application then its trade was restricted. That logic collapses when the potential applications of a technology are unknown.

Even more worrisome are the implications of the logic I’ve outlined here. If some technologies are so powerful that they can change the balance of power even without having military applications, then controlling their proliferation is both imperative and unprecedented.

This may sound paranoid to some, but the West must act; China is already doing so. Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at CSET, explained in Senate testimony earlier this month that Beijing considers technology and the infrastructure needed to develop it a national asset.

For China, this is a zero-sum game and government support for key industries such as AI can tip the scales in its favor. Puglisi pointed to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2014 speech in which he said that “science and technology innovation has become a critical support for increasing comprehensive national strength… whoever holds the key to S&T innovation makes an offensive move in the chess game and will be able to preempt the rivals and win the advantages.”

While the goals are the same — innovation and mastery of the frontiers of emerging tech — there is a big change in these approaches. China is trying to build an indigenous industry while the U.S. and its partners are trying to figure out how to restrict China’s access to new technology at a time when much cutting-edge research is collaborative and international. It’s considerably easier to construct an industry than it is to deconstruct an industry without damaging it.

Efforts by various governments to review investments, better regulate university research and identify and support key technologies are parts of this new approach. Unfortunately, most initiatives are scattershot and uncoordinated, internally or among partners. Planning must be better integrated across and between governments, aiming to promote and protect innovative capacity — and this must be framed as a national security concern.

It is impossible to overstate the need for a multilateral collaborative approach. One of the most important lessons of the last two years has been recognition of supply chain vulnerabilities and the realization that individual countries cannot internalize those production networks. Fortunately, one of the West’s greatest strengths is its alliances and partnerships. We have long understood their value when tackling hard security problems; in a world shaped by new technologies and new strategic realities, they are no less important.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.