WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
AI will play an increasingly central role in both government policy making and governing as China rolls out their first AI policy maker.
If you’re a foreign policy maker with a government then, whether you like it or not, you’ll soon be working with and competing against a new breed of opponent – a new Chinese policy maker, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) that, as it gets increasingly plugged into and used by Chinese ministries will one day have the power to influence and change the game of international politics, and the balance of power forever. And perhaps we’ll see these same type of AI’s emerge as a favourite to govern tomorrow’s businesses and virtual nations like Estonia.
Apparently diplomacy is very similar to a strategic board game. A country makes a move, the others respond, and all want to win. And AI is good at board games, just ask the AI that beat the Chinese Go champion a couple of years ago.
To get the game started these competitive AI’s first analyse previous plays, then learn lessons from defeats, and even repeatedly play against themselves to formulate and test new strategies that no human has ever thought of before. And recently AI’s, like Google Deepmind’s Alpha Go and self-learning Alpha Zero have defeated world champions in chess and Go – easily. Elsewhere though another AI called Liberatus won $1.7million at no-limit Texas Hold’em poker, an “imperfect information game” of “deception and bluff” where players have to play without having access to all the information all the time – a situation that’s all too familiar in the game of international politics.
Now, and unsurprisingly, several prototypes of a new AI policy maker are under development in China, according to researchers involved or familiar with the projects, and one of them, which was built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is already being used by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs who confirmed to the South China Morning Post that they “fully intend to use it in their diplomacy.”
“Cutting edge technology, including big data and artificial intelligence, is causing profound changes to the way people around the world work and live. The applications in many industries and sectors are increasing on daily basis,” said a ministry spokesman, before adding, “the [ministry] will actively adapt to the trend and explore the use of emerging technology for work enhancement and improvement”.
Over the years China’s increasing ambition to become the world’s largest economy has seen the pressure on its diplomats ratchet up significantly. The “Belt and Road Initiative” alone, for example, involves nearly 70 countries and 65 per cent of the world’s population, and the unprecedented program requires up to a $1 Trillion of new investment every year for decades to help pay for new infrastructure such as railways, roads and ports, in some cases in areas with “high political, economic or environmental risks.”
The teams behind the new AI policy maker say that at the moment it’s a “strategic decision support system,” with regional experts stressing that it will “still be humans who will make any final decision.”
The system works by studying the strategy of international politics by “drawing on large amounts of data that can contain information as diverse as cocktail party gossip to images collected by spy satellites.”
When a policymaker needs to make a quick, accurate decision to achieve a specific goal in a complex, urgent situation, the system can provide a range of options with recommendations for the best move, sometimes in the blink of an eye.
Dr Feng Shuai, senior fellow with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, whose research focuses on AI applications, said the new policymaking system was already attracting attention despite still being in its early stages.
Several research teams are developing these systems, said Feng, and at a conference discussing the impact of AI on diplomacy which was hosted by the University of International Business and Economics last month, several researchers shared some of their recent progress.
“Artificial intelligence systems can use scientific and technological power to read and analyse data in a way that humans can’t match,” said Feng, adding, “human beings can never get rid of the interference of hormones or glucose,” a hat tip to policy decisions that can all too often be influenced by human emotions and moodswings.
“The AI policymaker, however, would be immune to passion, honour, fear or other subjective factors,” he said. “It would not even consider the moral factors that conflict with strategic goals.” And that last one sounds like an especially fun trait to have…
Other nations are also conducting similar research into using AI in policymaking fields, but despite its advantages there are also potential problems with the model, researchers say. It requires a large amount of data, some of which may not be immediately available in certain countries or regions. It also requires a clear set of goals, which are sometimes absent or vague at the start of diplomatic negotiation, and a system operator can also temper the results and introduce bias, something that’s already a problem, by altering some parameters. All that said though it’s inevitable that AI will be used more and more, something that will “further widen the gap in strategic game capabilities between countries”, said Feng.
“If one side of the strategic game has artificial intelligence technology, and the other side does not, then this kind of strategic game is almost a one-way, transparent confrontation,” he said. “The actors lacking the assistance of AI will be at an absolute disadvantage in many aspects such as risk judgment, strategy selection, decision making and execution efficiency, and decision-making reliability. The entire strategic game structure will be completely out of balance.”
Liu Yu, an associate researcher at the Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and who was involved in the development of an award-winning AI war game system for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said human diplomats would have difficulty winning a strategic game against AI.
“AI can think many steps ahead of a human. It can think deeply in many possible scenarios and come up with the best strategy,” he said.
In the US a Department of State spokesman was quoted as saying the agency had “many technological tools” to help it make decisions, but there was, however, no specific information on AI that could be shared with the public, he said. And according to the department’s Information Technology Strategic Plan, American “diplomats are using powerful new technologies to advocate policy position, promote awareness, and enhance transparency”.
So China isn’t alone.
The plan also stressed the importance of big data as a tool to “offer more meaningful insights required for informed decision, problem solving and risk analysis,” but stopped short of mentioning AI by name.
Big data and AI are closely related but different. Big data technologies analyse complex data sets to generate insights, and they’re already widely used by governments around the world. They also spit out lists of pros and cons rather than telling you, or advising you, what to do.
AI, however, takes all this a step further, and more importantly it can act on the results if it’s allowed, whether it’s controlling an automatic stop at a traffic light, a move on a board game, or a verdict of go or no-go for a high-speed railway.
Yu also added that another policymaking system was being operated by the Department of External Security Affairs. As well as dealing with security issues the department makes policy recommendations on the operation of China’s overseas diplomatic missions.
The system, known as the “Geopolitical Environment Simulation and Prediction Platform,” is used to vet “nearly all foreign investment projects” in recent years, she said, and, naturally, it has access to lots and lots of Chinese government databases. She also said it too was “equipped with AI technology,” including deep learning and a neural network for risk assessment or prediction of events such as political upheaval or terrorist attacks, and that the ministry had seen “encouraging results”.
The system is still unable to make a strategic decision by itself though, “but the next generation will have the support function to do so,” and the new system is “under construction”, she said, without giving a date on its completion.
“The machine will never replace human diplomats. It only provides assistance,” she added.
One challenge to the development of AI policymaker is data sharing among Chinese government agencies. Until recently the Foreign Ministry, for example, had been unable to get some data sets it needed because of administrative barriers, she said.
China is aggressively pushing AI into many sectors. The government is building a nationwide surveillance system capable of identifying any citizen by face within seconds and introducing AI into schools, while research is also under way to introduce AI in nuclear submarines to help commanders make faster, more accurate decisions in battle, and to what extent AI may influence decision making depends on the senior politicians’ trust and acceptance of the new technology.
Zhang Lili, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said foreign policy makers should embrace AI as a powerful tool that could to take their work to a new level.
“In the past, our job was done entirely by the brain, which has limits,” he said. “AI can help us get more prepared for unexpected events. It can help find a scientific, rigorous solution within a short time. But the ultimate decision will have to be made by a human, this is a fundamental principle.”
Last month, in a conference on foreign affairs with Chinese diplomats, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “efforts to break new ground” in diplomacy, according to the state news agency Xinhua.
Xi asked the diplomats to “formulate principles and policies of China’s external work in a scientific way, through cool-headed analysis of international phenomena and China’s relation with the rest of the world”.
The diplomats must not “get lost in a complex and changing international situation”, he warned. And it looks like soon he could have the perfect emotionless wingman to help him as China sets its sights on conquering the world, and all this begs the question – when will we seen the first AI Prime Minister?