Originally posted on wired
As the global battle for AI dominance and quantum supremacy steps up, it’s possible that we’ll find ourselves in a world that has become less flat and less connected than it is now
Cast your mind back to just a few years ago, and you’ll recall that technology companies liked to stay above the political fray – those who worked in bits and bytes were divided into camps that ranged from a libertarian “If only government would get out of the way then we could solve all these problems” viewpoint, to a detached shrug of the shoulders: “we’re too busy building a business to get distracted by what’s happening beyond our foosball tables.”
Today, technology is inherently political, whether that’s the ethics of AI, the UK government’s Investigatory Powers Act, handset manufacturers being asked to unlock encrypted mobile phones, the rights of gig economy workers, the regulation of Big Tech, disinformation being spread by bad actors or cyber becoming a new domain of warfare.
But something has happened recently that goes beyond this: Big Tech companies have taken on a role in geopolitics. As the US-China trade war simmers, the US position remains that the Chinese teleco Huawei – which Washington believes is a cipher for Beijing – has no place in the 5G infrastructure of US allies. The UK government’s decision to allow Huawei into non-core aspects of UK infrastructure threatens to interfere with intelligence sharing between the so-called “Five Eyes” members – the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. US attorney general William Barr even mused that the US should take a controlling stake in either Ericsson or Nokia. That a member of the US Cabinet in an administration that advocates supply side economics should suggest state intervention to purchase a Swedish or Finnish company is extraordinary.
Increasingly, we’re seeing Big Tech take on a geopolitical role, whether it’s Facebook’s drive to establish a global digital currency, extremists using tech platforms to recruit and broadcast propaganda, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development – the intergovernmental group working on international economic co-operation – reviewing global tax policy in the light of Big Tech leveraging low-tax territories, political violence against minorities being organised through encrypted services, or tech companies becoming the biggest spenders on lobbyists in Washington DC and Brussels, tech isn’t just a player in the domestic political process, it’s a geopolitical proxy for nation states.
It appears that we have entered an era in which technology companies and wealthy individuals are being used as proxies while various geopolitical spats play out – think Jeff Bezos’ phone being hacked after receiving a WhatsApp message including a suspect video file, which purported to be from Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman.
As the global battle for AI dominance and quantum supremacy steps up, it’s possible that we’ll find ourselves in a world that has become less flat and less connected than it is now.