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Dongwoo Kim is a postgraduate research scholar working in the field of disruptive technologies and global governance at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

On Feb. 11, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order launching the national Artificial Intelligence (AI) Initiative to maintain U.S. leadership in this disruptive technology. The initiative addresses research and development, freeing of resources (data, algorithms and processing power), ethical standards, automation and, most interestingly, international outreach. The United States is following other countries that have launched broad, comprehensive strategies to boost their AI capacity. This initiative, however, is not merely another domestic science and technology policy, but rather a salvo in the intensifying battle between the United States and China that some experts are referring to as the new Cold War.

AI has become the technology du jour, touching virtually all aspects of our economy, society and imagination. A widely circulated PwC projection in 2017 estimated AI would add a total of US$15.7-trillion to the global GDP by 2030, almost 10 times Canada’s current GDP. AI is now regarded as the key to future economic prosperity; states and companies around the world are racing to invest in AI research and development and acquire relevant talent.

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AI does not exist in isolation but creates synergies through its integration into existing sectors (e.g. AI in transportation, health care and advanced manufacturing). This pervasiveness has collapsed pre-existing boundaries between different sectors, and has raised concerns over ethics and governance, both domestic and international. After all, potential AI benefits are proportional to potential AI catastrophes, depending on how the technology is used.

China and the United States currently lead the race for global AI supremacy. Beijing created a national strategy for its “AI leap” in 2017, announcing its intent to lead in all aspects related to AI by 2030. China’s ambitions are not limited to leading in R&D, but also in setting the global standard for the use of this technology – basically assuming the role the United States played in the propagation of the internet. Leveraging the availability of data, policy support and rapid economic growth, China has emerged as a powerful AI state. Paralleling the sense of fear of a stronger, more confident China that has emerged among liberal states around the world, Chinese development of AI has sent chills across the same Western countries, particularly in its applications for surveillance and military weapons.

America’s new AI Initiative must be interpreted within the greater contest between China and the United States over next-generation technologies. During the past year, the United States has led a campaign against the use of Huawei’s 5G network equipment around the world. 5G is a key technology for AI, as it will increase the quantity and speed of data and expedite the integration of AI across sectors.

After Washington banned the use of Huawei components in government equipment in August, 2018, its allies – Australia, New Zealand and Japan (so far) ­– have followed suit. The United States has been pressuring Ottawa to do the same. Also on Feb. 11, U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned allies that the presence of Huawei within their borders will complicate their relationships with the United States. In emphasizing “international outreach,” the United States will likely strengthen this kind of campaign, pressing like-minded, liberal states to shut out Chinese AI by emphasizing liberal values such as civil rights and democracy.

While it might be tempting for Canada to give in to Washington’s pressure, Ottawa should not lose sight of the bigger, long-term picture as a “tech Iron Curtain” draws across U.S.-China relations. For all of its good, AI requires global co-operation for effectively curtailing potential malicious uses. The U.S. campaign to shut out China threatens to create lasting fissures in the global governance of this technology for years to come, especially considering China’s already-established strength in the field and its regional influence in Asia.

As China continues to flex its muscle as a global power, Ottawa will increasingly be pressured to pick sides between Washington and Beijing. The recent row over the Huawei executive detained by Canada on an extradition order from the United States has opened a gulf between China and Canada based on contrasting political values. At the same time, increased protectionism and anti-trade rhetoric by the United States has underscored a divergence of interests between North America’s two long-time allies and highlighted the need for Canada to seek diversification in its global relations (and really mean it).

In a rivalry between the world’s two superpowers, options seem limited for middle powers such as Canada. But it will be in the middle where Canada can best distinguish itself as a reliable player on the international stage, true to its global reputation as a trusted and neutral intermediary. In today’s shifting global order, our long-term economic and political security will lie in our ability to engage with new partners – and old – in a meaningful and invested way.

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