Illustration: A man and a robot playing tug-of-war.

Risk of Asymmetric Conflicts

Europe seeks to become the ‘worldleading region for cutting-edge AI’, but it is lagging behind the United States and China in its number of AI talents and businesses, filed patents, published research papers, and investments into the AI industry for research and development. Which strategy does the old continent need to embrace?

All governments emphasise AI as a source of growth and competitiveness. At the same time, AI is classified as a ‘dual-use’ technology and is therefore subject to national security, export controls, and FDI screening mechanisms. Governments have hastily passed new regulations to mitigate cybersecurity risks, ensure privacy protection, and empower law enforcement. The new regulations also protect domestic markets under the banner of digital and data sovereignty. The head-tohead race has extended to national defence agencies that are preparing for a ‘hyperwar’ and making ‘battlefield-ready AI’ a priority. Most troubling of all is the development of lethal autonomous weapons (LAW). While the European Union is calling for a ban of ‘automated killing robots’, the United States, China, Russia, and other countries are all advancing or acquiring LAW capabilities. Compared to conventional weapons, cyber weapons are low-cost and more easily accessible, which will accelerate the diffusion of cyberwarfare and LAW capabilities.

Through AI-enabled mass surveillance, psychological operations, and the weaponisation of information, states and political actors might seek to acquire a disproportionate amount of power or amplify populism.

This will also empower otherwise weaker actors, thus tremendously increasing the risk of asymmetric conflicts. Due to the proliferation of cyber technologies and the ongoing rush by many states (over 40 states) to obtain offensive cyber capabilities for potential use in conflict, the actual risk of international cyberconflict and cyberwarfare has increased significantly, that is using digital technology by one country to disrupt vital digital systems of another country. Such proliferation of technologies also holds the risk of ‘friendly fire’ and ‘second order consequences’ because many cyber networks rely on some private sector infrastructure.

Debate on Ethics and Governance

There are numerous international organisations dealing with cybersecurity and cyber operations, but cyberspace and AI enable cyber conflict while lacking international treaties and attempts to build familiarity, mutual trust, and confidence, especially between the major powers. On the contrary, the United States is trying everything to decouple its technology and research from that of China and is pushing its allies to do the same.

The United States is doing this to confine China’s rise based on national security concerns, yet it has failed to provide evidence of misconduct. In addition, conventional armscontrol treaties have been ripped apart or put into question.

While we cannot anticipate the outcome of the digital and AI revolution because history gives us little or no reference point for what could be the final technological revolution, such sobering lists of immediate threats and longer-term structural imbalances have sparked an international debate about the ethics and governance of AI. In this debate, the term ethics is often used to summarise those legitimate concerns about these potential disruptions of AI. The debate about AI ethics and governance has resulted most notably in the definition of numerous AI principle frameworks worldwide, which have been primarily proposed by large Internet platforms and multinational corporations, as well as by international and non-governmental organisations and governments.

Despite subtle but crucial differences in selecting and emphasising certain ethical principles, the various principle frameworks commonly emphasise that future AI should be secure, safe, explainable, fair, and reliable, and they also stress that its benefits should be distributed across society. There seems to be an international consensus that AI should be developed and used for the greater good of humanity. It should be responsible, human-centric, and trustworthy, and it should always retain human agency and human oversight.

The Trajectory of History

Yet this positive framing primarily confirms, conversely put, that today’s ethics and governance are ill-equipped to prevent or sufficiently mitigate the disruptive forces of AI and that those potential forces are clearly of global and historical proportions. However, almost all frameworks analyse the risk of AI in a narrow sense: that is, without developing a link between the dual-use character of the technology and the actual state of social, political, economic, and international affairs.

Those frameworks ignore how AI will most likely reinforce rather than alter the current trajectory of history as indicated above. AI will increasingly make autonomous decisions, but it won’t escape and be completely autonomous from human practices any time soon, and we cannot expect it to become a transcendent, super-beneficial, and human-centric compass directing humanity toward universal equality and dignity. While many of these AI principles were quickly defined, the definition of new governance approaches, which are supposed to implement these principles, will be more difficult given AI’s complex and uncertain risk scenario.

AI will increasingly make autonomous decisions, but it won’t escape and be completely autonomous from human practices any time soon.

Governance is the possibility for collaboration directed by common principles. Collaboration is necessary, as each stakeholder faces different responsibilities and no stakeholder alone can tackle AI risks in their entirety. However, fundamental political and cultural differences especially between the major economic blocs undermine international collaboration. Even so, collaboration and cooperation will become more urgent in the future to effectively address the risks of AI. Those fundamental differences make the looming ethics and governance gap seemingly insurmountable.

Accordingly, the United States is a market foundationalist economy and individualist society following the motif of profit and personal self-fulfilment. The government emphasises AI as an opportunity for research and development, growth, and job creation. Cybersecurity risks are treated as a liability. In contrast, the European Union stresses solidarity and a human rights approach to AI. According to the European Union, AI should be lawful, robust, and ethical. The mitigation of AI risks is a matter of regulation.

In China, harmony and compassion are emphasised as the country’s underlying moral obligations. For the Chinese government, data and AI are a means of ensuring stability and discipline through surveillance and control. While Chinese people largely perceive the digital revolution as an opportunity, Western people tend to emphasise its dangers. While the former has trust in their central government and in how it handles the digital revolution, the latter tend to be sceptical towards their governments.

Pushing for Responsibility

Undoubtedly, such representations omit the many differences within each region and the similarities across all the regions. People in the Europe, the United States, and China have become increasingly aware of the privacy and security risks related to ubiquitous digitalisation and AI.

Governments have hastily sought to create a balance between security and autonomy to harness the benefits while simultaneously minimising the risks. Large Internet and AI platforms have been pushed to become more responsible. The big powers face the same challenges, but they approach them from different ends. Their differences are firmly rooted in their history and culture but are amplified these days.

Especially, the United States and China have lost patience working together. Instead, they forcefully articulate and defend their otherness. Today’s global context brings us dangerously close to a never-ending pre-war scenario between China and the United States.

Both powers are pushing towards the Thucydides Trap. The past globalism of the 1990s and 2000s threatens to turn into a post-global reality, one of competing national globalists repeatedly failing to reach a consensus for the development of a new equilibrium and multilateral order. The disintegration of the World Trade Organization and erosion of the old United States-led order brings us back to an era where ‘might is right’. It is an era of allegiances and fragmented bilateralisms. It is an era of high uncertainty and seemingly uncontrollable risks, where many have lost trust in businesses, technology, and local and global institutions, certainly within the West. Europe has become more ‘real’.

Today’s global context brings us dangerously close to a never-ending pre-war scenario between China and the United States.

Yet Europe’s realism is precarious as the region mainly balances between breaking up, heightened xenophobia, and protecting the ‘European way of life’ but without the capacity for global stewardship.

Like the United States, Europe has yet to find an escape path from the growing rift between its ‘Brahmin left’ and ‘merchant right’. Like the United States, Europe fails to represent the struggles and anxieties within its societies. Europe will remain sandwiched between a ‘protectionist’ United States, an ‘aggressive’ China, and the rivalry between the two countries.

Yet Europe’s realism is precarious as the region mainly balances between breaking up, heightened xenophobia, and protecting the ‘European way of life’ but without the capacity for global stewardship.

Although the United States seems to fear its future the most, China must also try harder to find a way to reduce such fear. For now, further harm is only prevented as each of the three powers is an important trading partner of the other two. Against such hyperbolised backdrop, it becomes obvious that AI will be used for good and for harm and to gain a strategic advantage over other competitors and rivals. Like capitalism, AI is disruptive and lacks the ethics of social good. Therefore, it’s a matter of human agency, collaboration and cooperation between stakeholders on national and international levels that could break through the current downward spiral and largely ensure that technology is used for good. For the time being, AI won’t be history’s primary cause but a technology with the high-risk amplifying history’s symptoms.

About the Author
Thorsten Jelinek
Policy Researcher

Thorsten Jelinek is the Europe director of the Taihe Institute, a public-policy think-tank based in Beijing. Previously, he was associate director at the World Economic Forum responsible for economic relations in Europe. He has worked with small and large enterprises and holds a Ph.D. in political economy from the University of Cambridge and an M.Sc. in social psychology from the London School of Economics.

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