A Chinese Board Game & JFK: Disrupting Warfare in the International Arena | AI
In May 2017 a Chinese teenager, Ke Jie, was comprehensively beaten by a computer program in the complex and ancient Chinese board game of Go – he was the world champion. The result triggered a Sputnik moment for China, realizing that it lagged far behind its primary adversary the United States, in a specific area of technology used by the computer program called Artificial Intelligence or A.I..
Such was the impact of this realization that two months later China issued an open challenge to the U.S. saying that it would become the world leader in A.I. by 2030 – a challenge to a race that bears great resemblance to the challenge John F. Kennedy issued after the Soviet Union launched the first man into space in April 1961.
It was only a month later, in May 1961, before JFK was asking Congress to approve billions of dollars in funding to support for his race to the moon. JFK believed that technological supremacy, military and civilian, lay at the heart of winning the race between democracy and communism, or freedom and tyranny as he also called them.
In an earlier speech in 1959, long before he became president, JFK told his audience that the Soviet Union had caught up with the United States “in many fields of science and technology where we were for so long supreme” and attributed its success to the 1950s Soviet Space program, “Sputnik is a symbol” he said, “the symbol of Soviet concentration on scientific education and development”.
Technology as we know it today hardly existed in the early 1960s, there was no computer science or software, the silicon chip was only invented in 1961 and the components to build the laptop computer would be invented progressively throughout the decade. The Soviet Union and America had to derive their technological stimulus from elsewhere, for the U.S.S.R. it had been the space program and JFK now needed to match their initiative with a race to the moon – and the rest is history as America has led the world in technology since.
Today, however, we can pick and choose our technologies and without doubt, A.I. is the most significant. Artificial intelligence describes the way in which a computer acquires intelligence and with it the ability to think for itself. Its speed and ability of processing enables it to determine the outcome of every possible scenario, no matter how complex, and therefore make the right decisions to win a contest, the game of Go being one small example.
In the game of Go where the number of possible outcomes almost defies mathematical calculation, A.I. was inevitably going to defeat any human being. If this computing technology can beat humans, it is axiomatic that whoever owns A.I. technology is going to be supreme – as the Russian Premier, Vladimir Putin observed a month later in June 2017, “the one who becomes the leader in this sphere [A.I.] will be the ruler of the world”. A.I. has both military and civilian applications across most technologies and cannot be viewed in isolation.
At a conference this year hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute at Annapolis, consideration was given to the likelihood of a military conflict between the United States and China. Whilst many envisage a direct military conflict as possible, JFK’s experiences show us that we should make a working assumption that it is probable.
In his 1959 speech about the technological (and military) rise of the Soviet Union JFK described “a Soviet-Chinese coalition” that he believed the United States would face in future. For over half a century there was no sign of such co-operation, not until very recently and if there was any doubt it was put to rest in April 2018 when the defence ministers of both superpowers issued a joint statement of mutual support against the United States. So the coalition JFK predicted is now real and any conflict might be with both Russia and China, and not just China alone.
In June 1963, two months before the historic Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed JFK delivered one of his most famous speeches, it was on the subject of peace anticipating the Treaty would be signed, as it was, in August that year. In that speech he identified the single most likely reason for a war between superpowers:
“The Communist drive to impose their political and economic system on others is the primary cause of world tension today. For there can be no doubt that, if all nations could refrain from interfering in the self-determination of others, the peace would be much more assured”.
With the treaty signed, JFK saw the primary cause of a conflict being a disagreement over the interference in other nations, which is where the real problem lies today. What now increases the chance of war is civilian technologies and the way they enable the few nations that own them, to interfere in the self-determination of others. An obvious example is Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election – but this is just the beginning.
With the Chinese challenge to a technology race, we now see the superpowers in an arms race and a technology race, although the U.S. government appears to be in denial about the latter. The New York Times published an article in May 2017 titled “Is China outsmarting America in A.I.?” Commentators in the article saw China as being in a race and observed the U.S. government didn’t realize one existed. But the threat to war doesn’t end there.
As technology companies disrupt industries around the world, it is incumbent upon their governments to regulate and protect their citizens from exploitation. In the international arena, however, there is no equivalent to government and no rule of enforceable law. There is only the United Nations and the various bodies established by it, but they are often ignored without consequence.
A case in point is the dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea where the Philippines took China to an international arbitration disputing its claims of sovereignty. The Philippines asserted its rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both countries are signatories.
In 2016, the international tribunal found in favour of the Philippines, and China subsequently issued a 500-page rejection of the decision and its findings stating that “The awards [against China] . . . have impaired the integrity and authority of UNCLOS, threaten to undermine the international maritime legal order, run counter to the basic requirements of the international rule of law, and also imperilled the interests of the whole international community” [para 5]. The disquieting facts are that China did not attend the arbitration, its subsequent 500-page rejection seemingly did not explain why, and whilst the tribunal’s decision stands China is ignoring it and carrying on regardless.
Another example is the United States allegations of theft of intellectual property by China, where I.P. is also a global regime regulated under the authority of the United Nations, this time through the World Intellectual Property Organization or WIPO. Both China and the United States are signatories, but WIPO is powerless to resolve the dispute between them over the alleged theft of I.P. which may in time undermine its status and authority.
As long as there is no enforceable rule of law internationally the international environment is one akin to the wild west where civilian technologies can be used to achieve foreign policy goals without restraint. And as long as there is no actual ‘war’, criticism in the way technology is used can be deflected with plausible deniability.
There are no precedents for the ‘illegal’ or ‘wrongful’ use of civilian technologies like A.I. for tactical and strategic purposes. The interference by Russia in 2016 in an inviolate democratic process wasn’t construed as war. Sanctions on Russia followed, but what can smaller countries do to stop this sort of interference?
The United States and Australia have banned the procurement of some 5G network and related telecommunications technologies from Chinese companies because of fears over national security. Other countries don’t agree, but what if these fears turn out to be justified, what can be done about it? The answer is nothing, as the example of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka shows.
The Hambantota Port serves as an example of the way in which technology can be used as a passive weapon to extend a country’s influence and control. The port was built by Chinese contractors and paid for by the Sri Lankan government using loans from China. It took several years to build and was largely unsuccessful on completion. In 2017 the burden of Sri Lanka’s loans to China became intolerable and the government was forced to hand over the port to China on a 99-year lease in part payment of loans. The port is a strategic jewel for China in the Indian Ocean sea lanes.
The incident sparked strong reactions and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund has since warned against these practices. But what can work with a port can work much better with technology.
China’s telecoms companies are now some of the largest in the world. Huawei became the second largest supplier of handsets in the world in 2018 and is one of the companies at the forefront of 5G network technology development. Technology is a lot more attractive sale to a government than a port that takes several years to build. Technology implies benefits and votes and, if in time a country can’t afford its network, by taking control of the network China would de facto control the country – and there is nothing in international law to stop that happening.
As the prospect of a war between China and the United States seems unlikely from a military perspective, the likelihood of civil technologies causing one is skyrocketing by comparison The flashpoints are strategic assets like the South China Sea and the Hambantota Port or, as JFK described, “interfering in the self- determination of others” where technology will create an opportunity even time a technology sale is made.
As we see the fourth industrial revolution begin to unfold with the Age of the Internet of Things, everyone and everything will be connected through technology. And so we must pause and think about the oldest board game in the world, Go.
The object of Go is to surround your opponent on all sides and so capture your opponent’s ‘stones’, as they are called. There is no conflict in the capture of a stone, only surrender. It is a passive and highly strategic game to dominate a board. Translated into an international perspective, technology is a means by which stones in the form of technology and networks can be laid passively to secure territorial rights and other concessions over time.
As we think about the simple rules in this ancient game and the future potential that technology offers in a lawless environment, we need to remind ourselves of JFK’s words in 1963 addressing an audience in Frankfurt, Germany, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future”.
Just as the United States invests so heavily in its military defence forces in the past and present, it must look to the future and invest in the means to engage new threats that have the same foreign policy objectives as war. The civil technology race, or data race, that JFK started in 1961 in sending a man to the moon, is one that again requires investment and active government support today.