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As new products and services have emerged throughout the history of capitalism, it hasn’t been unusual to see geographic clusters emerge that become an industry’s center of gravity. But the era of artificial intelligence has triggered an unusually direct response from countries that want to be at the center of a technology they see as both an opportunity to wield influence and a threat to their political independence.

This has created surprising nationalistic fervor around the subject as governments seek to rally support for their vision. This was the case in France’s AI announcement last week, but the country is far from the first. As AI evolves, the combination of the vast data gathering that is the mother’s milk of AI and the wide range of industries it is projected to disrupt have led to the conclusion that the winner in the AI race will wield extraordinary power.

In October 2016, the Obama administration released a wide-ranging report on AI and the U.S. economy that struck a mostly neutral tone regarding to competition with other countries. Of course, the U.S. can afford to do so because at the moment it’s the acknowledged leader in AI, both in terms of research and industry, thanks to tech companies like Google. Indeed, while the report called for an increase in the $1.1 billion the U.S. government invested in AI research in 2015, it didn’t lay out an overall industrial policy. Instead, it opted for the typical U.S. “public-private” balance, knowing that champions like Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook are funneling huge sums of money into the field.

Still, in a famous Wired magazine interview that accompanied the release of the report, President Obama noted the international challenges posed by AI:


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I think there’s no doubt that developing international norms, protocols, and verification mechanisms around cybersecurity generally, and AI in particular, is in its infancy. Part of what makes this an interesting problem is that the line between offense and defense is pretty blurred. And at a time when there’s been a lot of mistrust built up about government, that makes it difficult. When you have countries around the world who see America as the preeminent cyberpower, now is the time for us to say, “We’re willing to restrain ourselves if you are willing to restrain yourselves.” The challenge is the most sophisticated state actors — Russia, China, Iran — don’t always embody the same values and norms that we do. But we’re gonna have to surface this as an international issue in order for us to be effective.

Pretty much classic Obama right there: believing to the end that reasonable people could sit around the table and hash things out and come together.

The following summer, the Chinese government released its own plan for how it planned to make massive investments in AI with the goal of dominating the industry by 2030. The government revealed further details in January when it disclosed plans to spend $2.1 billion on an AI industrial park near Beijing that has room for 400 companies.

Last week, France joined the fray when it released its own report on AI. President Emmanuel Macron, the man who wants France to be a “startup nation,” said the government would invest $1.8 million in its AI strategy. In addition to his speech, Macron, who has sought to emulate Obama’s political style in so many ways, gave an interview to Wired magazine about his AI ambitions.

In the interview, Macron more directly addressed the notion of a kind of nationalistic imperative to win at AI:

I think artificial intelligence will disrupt all the different business models and it’s the next disruption to come. So I want to be part of it. Otherwise I will just be subjected to this disruption without creating jobs in this country. So that’s where we are. And there is a huge acceleration and as always the winner takes all in this field. So that’s why my first objective in terms of education, training, research, and the creation of startups is to streamline a lot of things, to have the adaptable systems, the adapted financing, the adapted regulations, in order to build champions here and to attract the existing champions.

But reading the report itself, that nationalism theme is even more revealing. France, and Europe in general, has been increasingly frustrated that the dominance of U.S. tech companies have threatened the region’s ability to control its digital destiny. As the French report put it:

Indeed, Silicon Valley is still the epicenter for the politics and economics of artificial intelligence, and it is held up as a model for anything that Europe regards as innovative. For many public and private stakeholders, it is more than a unique ecosystem; it is a mindset that must be adopted. California still dominates in word and in thought and encourages the concept of a single way, technological deterministic approach.

Now, AI seems to threaten an even greater loss of control and subservience, according to the French AI report:

In a digital world, which is now our own, this technology represents much more than a research field: it determines our capacity to organize knowledge and give it meaning, it increases our decision-making capabilities and our control over these…From now on, AI will play a much more important role than it has done so far and, most notably, it enables us to capitalize on the value of data. Therefore, artificial intelligence is one of the keys to power in tomorrow’s digital world.

The problem for France is that even though it has some world-renowned AI talent and a growing nest of promising AI startups, the country as a whole lags and finds itself staring up the bootheels of several competitors. Again, from the report:

The United States and China are at the forefront of this technology and their investments far exceed those made in Europe. Canada, the United Kingdom and, especially, Israel hold key positions in this emerging ecosystem. Considering that France and Europe can already be regarded as “cybercolonies” in many aspects, it is essential that they resist all forms of determinism by proposing a coordinated response at European level.

For France, according to the report, this is not just a question of giving its economy a jolt. Rather, it is question of asserting its values. AI is being developed in a way that favors a handful of major corporations, rather being developed for the benefit of people, the authors wrote. That is not just the detriment of individual liberty, but to political independence as well:

This is why the role of the State must be reaffirmed: market forces alone are proving an inadequate guarantee of true political independence. In addition, the rules governing international exchanges and the opening up of internal markets do not always serve the economic interests of European states, who too frequently apply them in one direction only. … It will only be possible to redress the balance of power by extending the circulation of this data; this would benefit not just public authorities but also the smallest of stakeholders in the economy.

This has become a more overt fight to shape the future, partly driven by continued fear of U.S. dominance. But many of the issues touched by AI, including jobs and security and regulations, will cross borders and ideally would be addressed in an international setting. Whether these nationalistic impulses still allow such cooperation across borders could determine whether AI is seen eventually as a tool benefiting humanity or a weapon of national defense.

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