How is technology reshuffling the cards of global competition?

The equalization of power relations through technology

The atomic weapon allows the weak to come close to the powerful. Because it gives a disproportionate potential for destruction to its holders, they are placed on the same pedestal. In this new scheme, presented by General Pierre Gallois, father of French nuclear deterrence, in his book Nuclear Age Strategy (1960), the size does not matter as much as the weapon used. If the 20ᵉ century was that of equalization by the atom, new technologies could see themselves playing a similar role in the economic and scientific sphere, but also in the military in the 21ᵉ.

They induce a fundamental novelty in the evaluation of the balance of power. They blur the hierarchies by giving the advantage no longer to the volume of resources committed, but to the degree of innovation. If the weight of budgets dedicated to research is decisive in the birth of technological innovations, it would be profoundly simplistic not to take into account more subtle and unquantifiable factors, which come under human psychology: creativity, sense of initiative, competitive spirit. Also, we see that if Israel’s research and development budget amounts to 13.5 billion dollars, less than a tenth of that of the United States, this does not prevent the Jewish state from being at the forefront of civil and military technologies in many fields: security, health, fintechs to recite nobody else but them. Mention should also be made of Taiwan, which manages to claim an important geopolitical position despite its limited economic and demographic weight. This is made possible thanks to its mastery of semiconductor design, the result of a strategy of investment and targeted research. In these cases, as in many others, the issue of innovation makes it possible to compensate for weaknesses that would otherwise be seriously disabling to weigh in the global game.

It should be noted that this observation is part of a historical continuity, in the sense that technical progress has always generated a decisive advantage for the actors who appropriate it. Advanced navigation techniques thus enabled the Netherlands to monopolize world trade in the 17ᵉ century, and to forge an Empire in total disproportion with the size and demographic weight of the metropolis. The examples could multiply. The irruption of new modern technologies therefore creates an upheaval which differs by its degree rather than by its nature. Still, innovations like artificial intelligence have the potential to impact all the traditional attributes of power (economic, military, political) so profoundly that any delay in this area could prove irrecoverable.

Key Power Technologies for the 21st Century

In this context, it is easy to understand that the international balance of power tends to be structured, more and more, around the mastery of certain technologies and processes.

Let’s first mention miniaturization, a paradoxical symbol of a contemporary world where power depends on the ability to produce the infinitely small. Triggered by the appearance of the integrated circuit, the race for miniaturization was devoted to the 20ᵉ century, which saw a succession of innovations such as the transistor (1947), the microcomputer (1973) or the compact disc ( 1982). This movement is taken to its climax with today’s electronic chips, the smallest of which measure no more than a few nanometers. Why such a frenzy in the quest for the microscopic? This is not just a question of convenience: the challenge is to facilitate portability, but also to reduce the prices and consumption of raw materials and energy. The applications are multiple and strategic, ranging from telephony to nuclear reactors. The interest is vital for the industries, as evidenced by the tensions around the question of Taiwan, a major producer of semiconductors, components essential for miniaturization…

Next, quantum technology, made possible moreover by miniaturization, will probably be the heart of global competition in the coming decades. Applied to the IT sphere, it exponentially increases the computing power of computers. The possibilities that are emerging are immense: by allowing the resolution of eminently complex mathematical problems in a fraction of a second, the quantum computer is called upon to revolutionize all fields, whether in terms of research or industry. A 2021 study on the subject estimates that quantum could represent a market of 300 to 700 billion dollars in the four key areas of finance, automotive, chemistry and the medical industry. It is clear that a real confrontation is already taking shape before our eyes and that a bipolar shock is looming for hegemony over quantum technology: the massive investments of China and the United States bear witness to this.

Finally, artificial intelligence, which should inevitably be transformed from top to bottom by the advance of quantum technology, brings with it radical changes. This set of technologies, which aims to reproduce the cognitive capacities of man, is the main driver of what some call the fourth industrial revolution, and constitutes one of the main levers of economic growth and scientific progress in the medium term. The main revolution it brings lies in the use of self-learning algorithms, which reform and improve constantly and autonomously as they process new data. The use cases are numerous and already widely used by many companies. Here again, we are witnessing a race to develop artificial intelligence, a major power issue of our century.

These three elements, linked to each other, are only examples, unavoidable it is true, of technologies destined to become the center of gravity of a global competition already widely engaged. Their colossal fields of application will not fail to upset our societies but also the links of domination on a global scale. In this context where innovation is the sinews of war, it is necessary to renew its reading grids and adopt a new paradigm allowing to visualize the balance of power in the light of these new technologies.

Alexandre Jeandat for the AEGE Data Intelligence Club

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