At the dawn of an era of breathtaking technological progress, Western democracies find themselves at a crossroads. The owners of this new territory are no longer just nation-states, but profit-driven corporations and, more worryingly, regimes that disregard international norms. Those systems are energetically driving the development of game-changing fields such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence and space technology.
Regressing and backward, Western governments are not just playing catch-up – they are in a race against time and technology, with the interests of citizens hanging in the balance.
the stakes are high. The immense potential of quantum technology, both in computational power and encryption, could have profound implications for national security. And immediately, the uncontrolled proliferation of AI is already raising social concerns.
As we approach the 2024 elections in the United Kingdom and the United States, the role of readily available, powerful AI tools in influencing public sentiment and election outcomes should concern us all. Opponents are already eager to deploy them in ways that compromise democratic principles and we haven’t had much time to work out how to handle the effects on processes born of the analog age.
Atlantic Council’s recent reports The challenge is posed in the context of wider geopolitical competition in the technological race with China. But while confronting China, we also need to work on our own institutional, ideological and political net.
In the age of technology, our definition of what constitutes the bedrock of a nation needs to be upgraded. The time has come to redefine national sovereignty for the digital age, including “technological integrity” – competitiveness, the responsible development and use of technology, the protection of digital rights, and the protection of our essential technological infrastructure. It should stand with territorial integrity as the main pillar of the modern nation-state. Governments, traditionally the stewards of the nation’s physical and financial well-being, must now also fully accept responsibility for shaping the technological foundations that underpin our societies. It is not just good governance, it is an essential aspect of the modern state.
But democratic countries face a more difficult challenge than non-democratic countries; We feel an imperative to act and shape the public interest, but there is also a need to develop strategies that preserve innovation, the free market, and economic vitality. New ideas and political courage are needed to reshape our approach. And while the intense focus on regulation is right, it is also part of a larger tapestry of change and innovation required at the government level.
As a starting point, we should look at new and effective ways of deploying taxpayer money to our advantage, for example by pursuing more meaningful government investment in strategic technology areas.
The US government has unlocked the power of export credit Improving US (and allied) competitiveness against China in certain areas. and an innovative proposal by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – setting up sovereign wealth funds Dedicated to technology development – offers an interesting route. These funds can be partnerships or single-nation enterprises, preserving the autonomy and mobility of private entities while ensuring that responsible democratic governments maintain a stake in key sectors. Public-private partnerships bound by shared values and clear objectives may also offer possibilities. By leveraging collective expertise and resources, we can shape technology development to uphold democratic principles, human rights, equality and the well-being of our citizens.
We know that international cooperation is critical in dealing with the complex technological landscape. Of course, this should also include engaging with multilateral institutions that have different goals and values, as well as optimizing existing international partnership structures. But we also need new ways to more efficiently align like-minded democracies and nurture less fragmented power blocs that can withstand global power struggles.
For example, imagine a democratic technology forum – an independent platform uniting nations, academia, industry and civil society. A platform of this nature, for example, as a development initiated by the UK-US Global Summit on AI Later this year, a dynamic conversation on technology development and regulation could emerge, responding to the rapid pace of change.
We have to think about adapting the government machinery to take advantage of the opportunities and manage the risks of technology. For example, the UK has recently brought together the tasks under a cabinet post dedicated to Science, Innovation and Technology, Another concept to explore could be a body (eg the National Technology Commission) that would work away from government to assess the country’s needs and make recommendations on priority projects and investments, while also encouraging responsible innovation. explore best practices to support and , It may challenge us to look beyond short-term election cycles and focus on the nation’s nonpartisan strategic interests in technology. And talking a good game on technology skills isn’t enough; Political will is required to weave it as a golden thread throughout the society including our legislators and administrators.
Our ability to influence the trajectory of technology certainly depends on practical regulation but this cannot be achieved without an informed, active and proactive legislative body. And, if we are honest, our political and administrative class needs help to develop the requisite knowledge. We need to find more creative ways to expose decision makers to cutting edge technologies and give them direct exposure to technology experts and developers. Partnering with universities and research institutions for technology workshops, innovation think-tank sessions, technical mentorships and CTOs for the legislature may all be worth exploring.
The balance is still in our favor, but we cannot assume that even with indigenous development, technology will bow before our values. And we cannot afford to stick to outdated policies and practices or rely on regulatory regimes that will never deliver any good results.
Although the space for Western governments to act more energetically is shrinking fast, we can re-establish practical state influence if we are creative, inquisitive and courageous enough to believe that we are democratically led and civil society. How to meet the challenges of securing a technology-centric future.
Beth Sizeland is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council and the UK’s former Deputy National Security Adviser.
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