Technology was at the forefront of driving politics in 2020. TRT World spoke with geopolitical futurist Abishur Prakash to discuss the risks technology poses for geopolitics in 2021 – and beyond.
With technology advancing at breakneck speed and private tech companies accruing immense power, governments have been forced to adapt to a brave new – and alarming – siliconised world that has rapidly come into focus, one with profound consequences for the future of the global economic and political system.
From India banning TikTok, the US threatening to delist Chinese firms, to Australia creating supply chains around rare earth minerals that block out China, technology was at the forefront of global politics in 2020.
For geopolitical futurist Abishur Prakash, 2020 was the year where the world transitioned away from the old world of geopolitics to what he calls “Next Geopolitics”.
The previous model of geopolitics, governed by oil and natural gas, was made up of countries with private actors holding little sway over how the global system was governed. In Next Geopolitics, “it’s not just countries that are geopolitical players, but technology companies have become global stakeholders in their own right and should be treated as such,” Prakash told TRT World.
Since 2013, Prakash has been tracking the role technology would have in reconfiguring the established world order, and how technology’s rapid transformation is generating new geopolitical risks. He is the author of several books, including his latest ‘The Age of Killer Robots’.
In his capacity with the Center for Innovating the Future (CIF), a Toronto-based futurism consultancy focused on the future of business and geopolitics, Prakash spoke with TRT World to map out what he sees as the ten risks that will drive geopolitics for 2021.
1. Data Borders
Abishur Prakash: Data borders are about governments realising that if they don’t take control of their data, they will be at a competitive disadvantage on the world stage.
A handful of governments have now woken up and said we don’t want our data going to solely help the US and China. If you look at data localisation laws in India and the EU’s proposal for a single market for data, at the crux is wanting to take control of their data.
By doing this, it will lead to new data borders and barriers of how data can move around the world, and who can access that data.
2. Blocked World
AP: When it comes to Blockchain, the elephant in the room is geopolitics. So far, it’s only been looked at through a commercial and political lens, such as for elections.
But governments are now preparing state-led blockchain projects, the biggest example being China’s Blockchain-Based Service Network (BSN), announced in October 2019. This is China’s bid to rewire the world and essentially place the world economy on a Chinese set of protocols. It’s the equivalent of a new internet being created, except China will be in control of it.
If you think about China taking BSN to parts of Asia, Africa, Europe – there are many countries that are not going to want to peg themselves to China’s blockchain like the US, India, Japan, the UK, and Australia. They will view it as perhaps the biggest geoeconomic threat they have faced in years. That means they will create their own “political blockchain” and BSN. This would mean a complete split in the global economy, and how it’s governed and interconnected. And it will happen at a scale that most governments don’t fully understand yet.
3. Tech Governance
AP: While tech governance has been around, the key distinction to keep in mind is the institutions that have been around for the past 70 years have 1) included the entire world, 2) they have expanded into technology as an afterthought. The UN was never created to deal exclusively with technology.
Now we have the D-10 group that is trying to set the global rules around 5G, and the G7-led Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI). New tech-based alliances that are emerging are becoming institutions in their own right because they are actively trying to create rules, but they are not open to the whole world. The D-10 and GPAI have purposefully not invited China or Russia into their fold.
Over the next 12 months, these groups are only going to gain traction and new groups are also going to form as countries will want to govern technology in their own way. And this is going to create a global clash between governments over who has the jurisdiction to set the global tech rules.
4. Tech Trade
AP: Governments were late on the trigger when it came to AI and 5G. They were allowing companies to build their networks and export algorithms solely for commercial gain without thinking about what the broader geopolitical implications were.
Now they’ve woken up with the 5G ban and will take aim at emerging tech fields like quantum computing and augmented reality (AR) because these two have the same transformational capabilities as AI and 5G. Quantum computing for encryption protocols around the world, and AR for geopolitical and commercial gain.
One way to maintain their edge is through export controls, which has already begun: the UK recently unveiled rules for malicious investments and doesn’t want foreign companies involved in merger & acquisitions of UK companies.
5. Big Breakup
AP: For the past two decades, tech companies have grown at an exponential level and become the gatekeepers of society. When they were growing, governments were asleep at the wheel, and even when they were paying attention they didn’t understand the severity of what was taking place.
There are many recent proposals on how Big Tech can’t exist the way it does and needs to change. But that’s a pipedream. The reality is that Big Tech now has a permanent role in society the same way governments do, and these two sides are clashing over who has the right to govern society.
This fight will only intensify because no side is going to want to cede control. Gen-Z and Millennials underpin social media companies today, and when they become politically active, social media will be the main channel they communicate on or run for office.
Undoubtedly, Big Tech never envisioned that it would be put under siege around the world. For so many years, Google had no problem writing fines and going back to business as usual. But now proposals are much more radical – forcing them to divulge financial interests, while the US and China look at restructuring these companies. Their profitability has been put on the line. How do governments and tech monopolies coexist with each other? There is no template.
6. Robot Warfare
AP: Robot warfare is about the growing dependency that militaries have on technology that is going to end up making its own decisions, and how this is going to lead to new flashpoints and a veil of uncertainty of what can happen next.
An example is the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which was carried out by a satellite-controlled machine gun that used AI and generated new tensions between Iran and its neighbours.
The way that militaries are going to deploy AI, whether in existing hotspots like the North-South Korean DMZ or just for border security, these technologies may end up making decisions that throw governments into a precarious situation – and the leadup to autonomous weapons taking the world into unfamiliar territory.
7. Space Wild West
AP: There are two levels to this. First, the era when nations cooperated with each other in space has ended. The only binding legislation for space is the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, implemented in 1967 and nothing has come since. In that era, there was also an incentive to play by the rules. You didn’t want global scrutiny; or at least made it seem like you didn’t.
Now you have countries like India, China, Israel, and others all coming up with their own space agencies. All of this means that countries are operating on their own accord in space, whether that means satellite launches, plans for the moon, or space mining. If you look at the International Space Station, even that is being pushed aside.
The second level is that private technology companies are taking steps that will further lead to a wild west scenario in space. An example is SpaceX launching huge amounts of satellites that will give it an extraordinary amount of geopolitical power. Think about if tomorrow Elon Musk woke up and said, “Let’s start supplying internet to Iran or North Korea” and people in those countries connect using their phones without their government’s approval. What are the repercussions?
8. 5G Coalitions
AP: When it comes to 5G, we are seeing countries being very explicit on whose side they’re taking. There was a time when countries tried to play both sides. Australia was a perfect example: a western country that looked to build its economy around Asia while still being militarily dependent on the US. That paradigm is being discarded now.
You can see that with the UK for the past half-decade or so. When it came to Asia, it had one foreign policy objective: to become China’s gateway to Europe. Now, the UK has banned Huawei, telling British telecom companies to remove all Huawei technology by 2027, and making it explicit to China that it’s no longer interested in playing both sides.
By doing this, countries are creating new foreign policy manifestos. Earlier this year, the US expanded its Clean Network initiative, which is focused on pushing Chinese tech out of the world. When you see countries like Sweden join the Clean Network initiative, they may not realise it, but they are re-designing their own foreign policy: you can’t on one hand sign onto a program that calls for not using Chinese apps or ensuring underwater internet cables are free from Chinese surveillance, and still cozy up to Beijing.
9. Immigration 4.0
AP: Right now, every nation in the world wants to become a tech power – they realise the old variables for economic growth are losing steam. Particularly now with the pandemic. If you look at a country like South Korea, it’s new economic design revolves around AI.
In order to achieve this in the short-term, countries will need to acquire the best talent in fields like AI and robotics. And not just computer scientists and engineers, but philosophers, ethicists, futurists, and business executives to build these industries.
So there is now a global war for tech talent taking place. Except, this war is clashing with geopolitical paranoia. Countries are becoming incredibly suspicious that people that they are letting into their nations are going to become threats in the future.
Around a month ago the UK proposed that it would stop certain foreign students – specifically Chinese – from studying subjects like cybersecurity and aerospace. What the UK is saying we don’t want to train the people that are going to out-compete us in five, ten, fifteen years. The US has similar policies against Chinese and Indian students, whom they see as strategic competitors.
As this chorus of paranoia grows, governments are also beginning to assess the talent they have already let in. A few weeks ago, a top Swedish official couldn’t get his security clearance renewed because his wife is Chinese.
Where a person is from is now going to become a big challenge for governments and increasingly define immigration when it comes to technology.
10. Chip Wars
AP: Think about it, why are the US and China clashing over technology? It’s simple: the US needs tech to maintain dominance, China needs tech to break US dominance. And to achieve this, China needs semiconductors. Without it, China can’t build advanced military capabilities, advanced automation or self-driving cars.
The US knows this and is trying to slow China’s rise and push them back a few years. It's not only doing this by blacklisting Chinese companies but by acquiring chip companies around the world, as we saw recently with US chip giant Nvidia’s acquisition of UK chipmaker Arm, whose architecture Huawei runs on.
Yes, China is behind in chips, no doubt, but don’t assume where China is now is where it will be in the future.
Over the next 12 months, Beijing is going to take a radical stance to acquire chips. One of the things it could do is force a large US multinational that depends on the Chinese market to start producing chips for China or face a ban. If this were to happen, it would send shockwaves through the entire business community, especially Silicon Valley.
That’s why it was not a strategic move for the US to take the steps it's taking with China. It would be wiser to have China dependent on your chips and cut it off at a later date than now. China is going to double down and once it builds up its domestic chip capabilities – which it will – the US will lose a major lever of control, and the steps China may take are going to challenge US geopolitical power in insurmountable ways.