Technological development is of vital importance in today's world, which is fragmented and characterised by the absence of a state as leader of world order (or disorder), and with power distributed among various actors across the globe. The importance of technology lies precisely in the current fragmentation of international relations since, unlike natural resources, which are normally finite and limited to a geographical space, technology, especially that related to cyberspace, is by nature decentralised and accessible by individuals in different parts of the world. In particular, there is one area of prolific innovation and investment in both the private and public sectors: artificial intelligence (AI).
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2017 that the country that masters AI by 2030 "will become the master of the world." While such a statement is perhaps somewhat bombastic, it is clear that for states aspiring to play a leading role in tomorrow's world, it is crucial to strengthen their AI capabilities.
There is no agreed definition of AI, but in the most basic sense, an AI is a technology that aspires to develop an intelligence of its own, like that of humans. The technology research firm Gartner defines it as "technology that appears to emulate human performance, typically through learning, reaching its own conclusions and understanding complex content, engaging in dialogues with people, reinforcing the cognitive abilities of humans, or replacing people in the execution of non-routine tasks". An advanced AI can be virtually autonomous, i.e. it does not need to be operated by a human being and can therefore learn from its environment (known as machine learning).
The great distinguishing feature of AI is that it can be applied in a myriad of areas with multiple uses, both military and civilian. In fact, it is already present in many people's everyday lives, whether through algorithms that detect the preferences of Netflix users, or in smartphones that unlock with the owner's face. According to the 2021 Global AI Adoption report, more than 30% of global businesses are implementing AI in their operations.
AI is also very present in the area of national security, as AI can strengthen the capabilities of states in cybersecurity and cyberespionage, detecting threats and protecting computer systems faster and more efficiently than humans, and also in the area of armaments: several countries are developing autonomous weapons (the best known being drones, but not the only ones) that would operate exclusively through AI instead of a human being.
Logically, few countries have the resources to become leaders in AI, but many governments want to implement it, both in the civilian and military spheres, so there is growing concern among both experts and the global political community that future international relations will be determined by a kind of techno-colonialism. In this scenario, most countries, especially developing ones, would be dependent on the AI created in AI pioneer countries, leading to a dependency relationship that would emulate 19th and 20th century colonialism, but instead of military and economic control, this time it is technology and in particular AI that enables the dominance of one major foreign power over another, extracting huge profits in the process.
Currently, two countries are leading the way in AI: the US and China. This duopoly is of concern to other players, such as Russia, the UK and the EU, which realise that they must expand their AI capabilities to ensure their stability and not depend on the technological innovations of others. For example, the EU has long sought to promote its technological and digital sovereignty, i.e. the ability to control the technology used daily by millions of citizens and their governments, rather than ceding such control to other powers. Only by building "our own champions in the digital and AI areas" can the EU prevent "our choices being dictated by others", as announced by French president Emmanuel Macron.
Thus, the current scenario shows great inequalities between those countries that have the economic and human capital to strengthen their AI capabilities, and developing states, which are far from enjoying the same resources, and which often have more pressing priorities than AI, such as reducing poverty. This technology gap puts the developing world at the mercy of the most advanced AI countries, especially the United States and China. Already, several countries have implemented the cutting-edge technology of the two AI superpowers, in effect relying on it for their own security and national interests: in other words, becoming techno-colonies.
The sharp divide between the technologically developed world and the rest of the world leads to an asymmetrical relationship of dependency and extractivism, whereby companies and governments in countries such as China and the United States make significant profits at the expense of the majority of the population in techno-colonised societies. Over the last decade, several developing countries have been used as veritable testing grounds by Chinese and US companies, which have implemented AI programmes of all colours, without the consent of the societies concerned, but with the permission of their often dictatorial governments. Two examples.
The British company Cambridge Analytica has been in the eye of the storm since its involvement in the 2016 US presidential election and the UK's EU membership referendum campaign that same year. Cambridge Analytica was accused of storing the private data of more than 80 million Facebook users in order to help Donald Trump's campaign (for example, by displaying certain ads tailored to each user, based on their psychological profile and interests, which were deduced from the data stored by the company itself).
Less well known, however, is the company's role in the presidential elections in Kenya and Nigeria in 2013 and 2015, respectively. In both cases, Cambridge Analytica used the elections in both African countries to conduct test runs, manipulating social networks to favour the campaign of the then president Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria, or his counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya. The role of AI is key, as it allowed Cambridge Analytica to optimise advertising for certain candidates using complex algorithms developed by an AI system that could test thousands of different ads in a short period of time and decide which of them was the most efficient, according to Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of the company.
Ultimately, the Nigerian and Kenyan elections served as "test-bests" for Cambridge Analytica to develop and improve its AI techniques, which would later be deployed in the US and UK.
Another instance of techno-colonialism is clearly seen in the video surveillance carried out by the Zimbabwean government since 2018. This African state implemented a mass surveillance system created by the Chinese company CloudWalk, which makes it possible to recognise citizens' faces in just a few seconds, thanks to AI. This technology was later implemented by the Chinese government in Xinjiang province in order to video-surveil members of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority. CloudWalk technology is one of the most intrusive and dangerous technologies, especially in the hands of authoritarian governments. Its use not only by China, where it was created, but also by Zimbabwe, shows once again the repetition of the dominant-dominated relationship of classical colonialism.
Video surveillance of civilians is precisely one of the most pernicious applications of AI; unfortunately, it is not only used by dictatorships, but also by democratic countries. In this regard, the Chinese and American dominance is impressive: the major European countries (Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain and others) use AI developed in China and the US in their video surveillance systems, according to a 2019 report by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. This preference of Europeans for AI from outside countries challenges not only the EU's much-needed technological autonomy, but also the rights of its citizens, whose data is stored by non-European companies and often under a different legal regime.
The EU already has its own AI regulations, but they are of little use if the AI used by its member states is imported from China and the US or operated by companies in those countries. If Europe fails to be autonomous in this respect, it will be at the mercy of the will of the two tech giants and, in the worst case, could be relegated to the role of, effectively, a techno-colony.
And here is the paradox. This article began by stressing that power in today's multipolar world, partly due to the impact of technology, is increasingly dispersed and fragmented among various actors. However, through the control of technologies such as AI by just two giants rather than multiple actors, the classic patterns between coloniser and colonised, dominator and dominated, can be repeated in the realm of technology. And, given the pre-eminent role of AI in global dynamics, this new techno-colonialism could spill over into the rest of international politics, in effect returning to a world in which a few powers decide the fate of the population in dominated countries. The difference, however, is that this new relationship between the powerful and the weak is not carried out through physical invasion and subjugation, but through something much more ethereal and intangible: Artificial Intelligence.