AI Ethics And The Looming Political Potency Of AI As A Maker Or Breaker Of Which Nations Are Geopolitical Powerhouses

Geopolitical power aiming to be shaped by nations that embrace AI versus those that do not.


Geopolitical power.

Some nations have it, some do not.

Nearly any discussion about international politics has to inevitably include the nuances and importance of geopolitical power. Which nations have the greatest geopolitical power? Are they on the upswing or the downswing when it comes to their reservoir of perceived geopolitical prowess? Which nations are the weakest in geopolitical maneuvering and positioning?

And so on it goes.

In a moment, I will be revealing that one up-and-coming factor that some pundits believe will be a make-or-break for having geopolitical power is the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Countries that are in possession of AI and know how to harness AI will be powerful nations. They will be able to outsmart and outsize countries that are lacking in AI or that are befuddled by AI.

The assertion is that AI will dramatically impact the geopolitical winners and losers as to which nations are seen as powerful and which are not. AI will be as important or possibly more so than many of the usual factors that determine where a nation sits on the geopolitical pecking order. All in all, this raises a slew of thorny AI Ethics questions. For my ongoing and extensive coverage of AI Ethics and Ethical AI, see the link here and the link here, just to name a few.

Let’s dive into the meaty topic by first exploring the Source of the Nile, as it were, with regards to what seems to enable nations to have geopolitical power or be somewhat bereft of it. We can then add AI into the mix and see what power-producing astonishing results can arise.

Key Factors In Geo-Political Power Making

You might be wondering how it is that nations seem to gain or lose geopolitical power.

Maybe it happens on a random basis.

That though seems a bit unlikely. The odds are that the actions that a nation takes and how it behaves in the global arena is a substantive factor in its geopolitical weightiness. Sure, a bit of luck or random element might come to play, but by and large there seems to be a method to the madness of how geopolitical power manages to ratchet up or down.

Perhaps the most obvious geopolitical factor that seems notably significant as a power-inducing facet would be military might.

A nation that has lots of weaponry is bound to be perceived as powerful. Other countries would presumably be altogether hesitant and generally unwilling to overly irk a nation that can seemingly tackle them to the ground and pin their shoulders. Even if a militarily heavyweight nation did not particularly employ its weaponry for warring purposes, the very existence of the military inventory could be quite a sign that they are able to act when provoked or when they might otherwise wish to do so.

Does the physical size of the country enter into its geopolitical power ranking?

In one sense, you could argue that size alone is not especially vital. The specific location of the nation might be weightier than the geographical size per se. Size nonetheless can count. With size, there is usually the possibility of natural resources. The more a country has natural resources, the heightened chance that it can leverage those resources and garner geopolitical power accordingly. Also, we might envision that population is another potential factor that influences geopolitical power, and a larger-sized nation is customarily going to have room for population growth that space-constrained nations might not so readily enjoy.

There are various frameworks on how to best ascertain the geopolitical underpinnings that determine the power potential of nations. Let’s use a handy framework identified in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

First, here’s the context for this particular framework: “Power remains one of the key concepts of international politics. Yet, while references to power are ubiquitous, defining power and its components is more complicated. The capacity of a state in international politics has long been assessed in terms of its military prowess and physical resources. Very frequently, geopolitics has focused on a few specific conceptions of power without providing a comprehensive framework for analyzing all the elements that contribute to a state’s stability and position in the international system” (by Nayef Al-Rodhan, “The Seven Capacities of States: A Meta-Geopolitical Framework”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 2018).

On a meta-geopolitical basis, the research then proposes that these seven capacities are the essence of national power:

1) Social and Health Issues

2) Domestic Politics

3) Economics

4) Environment

5) Science and Human Potential

6) Military and Security Issues

7) International Diplomacy

Each of those factors is generally interdependent with each other. You cannot usually single out just one factor and ignore the others. Furthermore, a nation that is seeking to amass geopolitical power can at times make the easy mistake of pouring its efforts into one factor and then find itself being undercut by a lack of attention to one of the other factors.

As stated in the research article: “Faring well across the seven capacities is critical for sustainable state power. While partial setbacks in one capacity can be overcome, persistent frailties in one or more of these capacities over a prolonged period of time will result in wider systemic shocks and ultimately threaten the overall stability of the country and its standing in international politics. A country that overspends on ambitious military interventions but then underfunds critical areas of public policy is bound to suffer inevitable negative repercussions, even if they take several years or even decades to manifest” (as cited above).

Now that I’ve laid out a reasoned foundation of seven core factors entailing geopolitical power, we are ready to play a bit of a game.

Here’s the gambit.

A rising assertion is that Artificial Intelligence needs to be added to the list.

The belief is that AI is going to be demonstrably important in shaping the capabilities of all nations of the world. Nations that are able to embrace and utilize AI are going to be on top. Countries that ignore the advent of AI will be left behind.

We can add an additional category of nations that do a rotten job of adopting AI such that they essentially shoot their own foot. In that sense, a nation that gleefully aims to make use of AI can turn out either a winner or a loser. The losers are those that are inept at AI usage or allow AI to overtake their nation in insidious ways (we will consider those ways momentarily).

Please be aware that not everyone is sold on singling out the claimed importance of AI.

Recall that amidst the list of seven categories was Science and Human Potential. You could perhaps simply lump AI in that particular category. As such, AI is then merely a portion or subset element within the set of seven capacities.

Some pundits exhort vigorously that AI is being overemphasized nowadays as a power-related mitigator and we should construe AI in the same manner that we might list all other high-tech advances such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), meta-verse, blockchain, and so on. AI is just another foot soldier in the tech-mania realm.

Not so, contend strident advocates of AI.

They fervently counterargue the lucid case that AI is a breakout standout in the high-tech milieu. AI is not just a run-of-the-mill placeholder in high-tech. AI is going to turn the world upside down, in a manner of speaking.

Before I go further on this back-and-forth about the worthiness of AI as a meta-geopolitical power-making powerhouse, it might be useful to clarify what I mean when referring to AI. There is a great deal of confusion as to what AI connotes. I would also like to introduce the precepts of AI Ethics to you, which will be integral to this power factoring entailment.

Stating the Record About AI

First, let’s make sure we are on the same page about the nature of today’s AI.

There isn’t any AI today that is sentient.

We don’t have this.

We don’t know if sentient AI will be possible. Nobody can aptly predict whether we will attain sentient AI, nor whether sentient AI will somehow miraculously spontaneously arise in a form of computational cognitive supernova (usually referred to as The Singularity, see my coverage at the link here).

Realize that today’s AI is not able to “think” in any fashion on par with human thinking. When you interact with Alexa or Siri, the conversational capacities might seem akin to human capacities, but the reality is that it is computational and lacks human cognition. The latest era of AI has made extensive use of Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL), which leverage computational pattern matching. This has led to AI systems that have the appearance of human-like proclivities. Meanwhile, there isn’t any AI today that has a semblance of common sense and nor has any of the cognitive wonderment of robust human thinking.

Part of the issue is our tendency to anthropomorphize computers and especially AI. When a computer system or AI seems to act in ways that we associate with human behavior, there is a nearly overwhelming urge to ascribe human qualities to the system. It is a common mental trap that can grab hold of even the most intransigent skeptic about the chances of reaching sentience. For my detailed analysis on such matters, see the link here.

To some degree, that is why AI Ethics and Ethical AI is such a crucial topic.

The precepts of AI Ethics get us to remain vigilant. AI technologists can at times become preoccupied with technology, particularly the optimization of high-tech. They aren’t necessarily considering the larger societal ramifications. Having an AI Ethics mindset and doing so integrally to AI development and fielding is vital for producing appropriate AI, including the assessment of how AI Ethics gets adopted by firms.

Besides employing AI Ethics precepts in general, there is a corresponding question of whether we should have laws to govern various uses of AI. New laws are being bandied around at the federal, state, and local levels that concern the range and nature of how AI should be devised. The effort to draft and enact such laws is a gradual one. AI Ethics serves as a considered stopgap, at the very least, and will almost certainly to some degree be directly incorporated into those new laws.

Be aware that some adamantly argue that we do not need new laws that cover AI and that our existing laws are sufficient. In fact, they forewarn that if we do enact some of these AI laws, we will be killing the golden goose by clamping down on advances in AI that proffer immense societal advantages. See for example my coverage at the link here and the link here.

In prior columns, I’ve covered the various national and international efforts to craft and enact laws regulating AI, see the link here, for example. I have also covered the various AI Ethics principles and guidelines that various nations have identified and adopted, including for example the United Nations effort such as the UNESCO set of AI Ethics that nearly 200 countries adopted, see the link here.

Here’s a helpful keystone list of Ethical AI criteria or characteristics regarding AI systems that I’ve previously closely explored:

  • Transparency
  • Justice & Fairness
  • Non-Maleficence
  • Responsibility
  • Privacy
  • Beneficence
  • Freedom & Autonomy
  • Trust
  • Sustainability
  • Dignity
  • Solidarity

Those AI Ethics principles are earnestly supposed to be utilized by AI developers, along with those that manage AI development efforts, and even those that ultimately field and perform upkeep on AI systems.

All stakeholders throughout the entire AI life cycle of development and usage are considered within the scope of abiding by the being-established norms of Ethical AI. This is an important highlight since the usual assumption is that “only coders” or those that program the AI is subject to adhering to the AI Ethics notions. As prior emphasized herein, it takes a village to devise and field AI, and for which the entire village has to be versed in and abide by AI Ethics precepts.

I believe that I’ve now set the stage adequately to examine more closely the assertion that AI belongs in the list of geo-political power brokering.

AI Making The Grade Or Just Another Pretty Face

First, we should acknowledge that the AI being considered in this particular discussion is the non-sentient grade.

If we wanted to instead make a leap-of-faith assumption that AI is going to attain sentience, we would undoubtedly have to completely rethink this whole argument about where AI sits in the power-making realm. The crux of the argument in sense would collapse into nearly no argument at all.

Why so?

Well, we know that some have made rather bold and outstretched predictions about how the emergence or arrival of sentient AI is going to radically change the world as we know it today (as a reminder, we don’t know if sentient AI will occur, nor when, nor how).

Here are a few reported famous quotes that highlight the life-altering impacts of sentient AI:

  • Stephen Hawking: “Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history.”
  • Ray Kurzweil: “Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”
  • Nick Bostrom: “Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.”

Those contentions are obviously upbeat.

The thing is, we ought to consider the other side of the coin when it comes to dealing with sentient AI:

  • Stephen Hawking: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
  • Elon Musk: “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. I mean with artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon.”

Sentient AI is anticipated to be the proverbial tiger that we have grabbed by the tail. Will we skyrocket humanity forward via leveraging sentient AI? Or will we stupidly produce our own demise by sentient AI that opts to destroy or enslave us? For my analysis of this dual-use AI conundrum, see the link here.

Anyway, getting back to the gist of this discussion, I would be on relatively safe ground to make the pronouncement that sentient AI, if such a thing ever arises, does seem worthy of being on the same level as the other seven capacities of national power.

You would seem hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

On a meta-geopolitical basis, the seven capacities of national power would be extended to include the eighth capacity, as listed here (see #8):

1) Social and Health Issues

2) Domestic Politics

3) Economics

4) Environment

5) Science and Human Potential

6) Military and Security Issues

7) International Diplomacy

8) Artificial Intelligence

At the juncture of sentient AI arising, you could go further in this heated debate about where AI sits and probably make a rather compelling case that AI ought to be at the topmost of the list.

Like this:

1) Artificial Intelligence

2) Social and Health Issues

3) Domestic Politics

4) Economics

5) Environment

6) Science and Human Potential

7) Military and Security Issues

8) International Diplomacy

That doesn’t really though fit this listing approach since the list is supposed to consist of equals. Ergo it doesn’t matter whether a listed item is first or eighth. They are all equal in weight.

Due to the magnitude of having sentient AI, which we are imagining will arise, maybe the list boils down to just one item, Artificial Intelligence, and the others pale in comparison.

But all of that entails a theoretical presumption of attaining sentient AI. We could go on and on about what that might portend. We need to return to contemporary Earth and recast this discussion around everyday non-sentient AI.

Does the modern-day non-sentient AI rise to the prominence of earning a spot on the seven capacities of power listing?

Arguments for and against this posture can readily be devised.

For example, you could clearly point out that AI as we know it already is impacting social and health aspects such as being able to find cures for diseases and being used by physicians in the treatment of illnesses. AI is aiding environmental efforts such as tracking the effects of climate and aiding the analysis of ecological matters. AI is being included in military weaponry, which I’ve discussed at length in this assessment of autonomous weapons systems, see the link here.

In short, today’s AI is demonstrably playing a role in all of the other seven capacities. Remember that one noted consideration is that each of the seven capacities is interdependent upon the others. In that same way of thinking, you can abundantly make the case that AI is able to bolster each of the seven capacities. I have also analyzed the use of AI for advancing the United Nations Sustainability Goals (SDGs), see the link here.

AI is becoming ubiquitous.

That seems to make a convincing case that one way or another, AI is a crucial element of the power brokers, namely since AI is at the very least going to dramatically impact all of the other proclaimed capacities that produce geopolitical power.

A prominent rejoinder is that the AI of today and in the nearby future is admittedly something of modest noteworthiness, but it doesn’t rise to the stature of being a standalone full-on major capacity that can deny or promote the power of a nation.

AI is icing on the power cake, but it isn’t the cake.

We don’t as yet know which side of this argument is right.

One thing for sure we do know is that nations amply seem to be fiercely bent on trying to devise AI and harness AI. A race of sorts is underway on the international stage to see which nations are able to arrive at top-notch AI the soonest. I’ve covered the race toward AI in the link here.

You might try to persuade that the geopolitical race to attain AI is based exclusively on reaching sentient AI. In that frame, if sentient AI isn’t around the corner, the nations that are expending resources toward the elusive goal of sentient AI are usurping their own capacities today at the sacrifice of a false aspiration. They will eventually realize the folly of their ways. Meanwhile, they have chewed up enormous resources that could or should have gone to any of the other seven power-making capacities.

Are those AI-seeking nations going down a primrose path?

The counterargument is that even if sentient AI is the goal, and even if that goal is not soon reachable or never reachable, the plethora of other advantages to the less-than-sentient AI will readily provide plenty of benefits and was a worthy ROI for the nation-state investment made.

Round and round the arguments go.


Let’s assume for sake of assumption that AI does materially impact nation-state geo-political power.

Consider the sage words of the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus: “Whoever is new to power is always harsh.”

Some head-scratching questions arise:

  • Will the nations that first seemingly arrive at some level of AI that dominantly makes an all-encompassing power difference become new to such power and thusly wield it harshly?
  • Will an asymmetry arise amongst nations that allow the AI-powered ones to subjugate those that don’t have the AI?
  • Will the adoption of AI be so easily undertaken that even conventional powerless or less-powerful nations find themselves able to rise at a power pace and manner they heretofore never dreamed of being able to muster?
  • Etc.

One final thought for now.

Lord Acton made one of the most oft-repeated memorable lines about power: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

When considered in the context of AI, the sad face version is that those with AI become power-mad and are absolutely corrupted because of it. Not good.

The smiley face version is that if AI is able to spread power widely and all share in it, geopolitical power will be dispersed and no longer morph into a narrowly focused power-gripping vortex. Power to all. Indeed, pundits are clamoring that the splendor of AI is that we will finally as a civilization and species find a means to democratize the entire world (see my coverage at the link here).

That’s as long as AI doesn’t decide it wants to seize and exert geopolitical power over humankind.

You see, even AI could tend toward absolute power that corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton might have been such a visionary that he was referring not solely to humans, but also anticipating the one day someday emergence of all-powerful AI.

Let’s aim for the smiley face version of AI-inducing geopolitical power, shall we?

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