Foreign Policy Magazine

The Algorithms of August

The AI arms race won’t be like previous competitions, and both the United States and China could be left in the dust.

AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE ARMS RACE IS COMING. It is unlikely to play out in the way that the mainstream media suggest, however: as a faceoff between the United States and China. That’s because AI differs from the technologies, such as nuclear weapons and battleships, that have been the subject of arms races in the past. After all, AI is software—not hardware.

Because AI is a general purpose technology—more like the combustion engine or electricity than a weapon—the competition to develop it will be broad, and the line between its civilian and military uses will be blurry. There will not be one exclusively military AI arms race. There will instead be many AI arms races, as countries (and, sometimes, violent nonstate actors) develop new algorithms or apply private sector algorithms to help them accomplish particular tasks.

In North America, the private sector invested some $15 billion to $23 billion in AI in 2016, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report. That’s more than 10 times what

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