All innovations have been weaponized at some point in history and subsequently transformed warfare and politics. In the early 17th century, for example, French and Spanish sportspeople would attach knives to their muskets, favoring those made in Bayonne, France, when hunting dangerous games. In 1671, however, the French implemented the “bayonet” for military purposes, making it a staple in European arsenals by the end of that century. And while history does not repeat itself, it sure does like to echo itself. So, we see the repeated weaponization of inconspicuous innovations and their use in conflicts between major political players, whether physical or digital. Accordingly, the U.S. and China are now playing tug of war through AI Chatbots, and Southeast Asia is effectively caught in the middle.
U.S. Serving the First Serve
AI chatbots, in general, are nothing new as they have been used in several fields, including higher education. But in November 2022, OpenAI unveiled ChatGPT, an AI chatbot whose conversations stunned everyone. In a nutshell, it’s an AI-powered chatbot that identifies patterns in significant amounts of material taken from the internet and further educated with the help of humans to provide more helpful, better conversation. The responses you receive appear logical and reliable, but they may be completely incorrect. Additionally, it doesn’t reference any of its sources. At the time of its release, it was the most extensive neural network yet. The abilities of this AI chatbot include word prediction and language comprehension. To do this, 570 GB of textual material from the internet, including articles from Wikipedia, novels, and forum debates, went into the training of the system.
China: The Empire Strikes Back
China has made significant contributions to AI globally over the last ten years and established a solid basis to sustain its AI industry. As a result, China is one of the top three countries in the world for AI vibrancy, according to Stanford University’s AI Index, which measures AI developments on a global scale across several parameters in research, development, and the economy. For instance, in terms of research, China contributed nearly one-third of all AI journal papers and AI citations in 2021. Additionally, in terms of economic investment, China brought in $17 billion for start-ups in artificial intelligence, making up over one-fifth of all private investment funding globally in 2021.
Not to Be Outdone by the Americans
Fast forward to the present day, thanks to Baidu Inc., we witness the creation of the Chinese “Enhanced Representation through Knowledge Integration” bot, also known as ERNIE 3.0 Titan. This AI chatbot is a revamped version of ERNIE 3.0, having a release date in March 2023. The rework allows for zero-shot and few-shot learning while providing the AI with significantly more parameters and complexity from a smaller framework using large-scale text data and a knowledge graph. In fact, this change allowed the team to switch from the 260-billion-parameter Titan to the ten-billion-parameter ERNIE 3.0. In reality,
Baidu has been struggling to adjust to the mobile era and falling behind rivals in the Chinese market (especially in mobile advertising, video, and social media). Competitor businesses, like Tencent, have prospered in the interim. To combat this, Baidu has been investing significantly in cutting-edge technologies, such as AI, cloud services, chips, and driverless cars.
The War of AI Chatbots: Geopolitical Impact
As it stands, artificial intelligence, in general, will play a prominent role in how countries can conduct themselves internationally. Countries in Southeast Asia have varying degrees of AI readiness, or the preparedness and capacity to develop and use AI technologies to implement change. The region primarily uses technology imported from two front-runners in the AI race: China and the US. In a previous article, we discussed China’s Digital Silk Route (DSR) and its regional impact. Similarly, the situation between Chat GPT and Ernie will transform and forever redefine politics, specifically geopolitics.
Let me paint you a picture: in the American corner, you have Chat GPT, a Microsoft-backed AI chatbot, and in the Chinese corner, you have Ernie Bot, a Baidu Inc project that has been in work since 2019. Both rely on a massive amount of data available on the web to provide answers to the “prompt,” regardless of how politically correct or, in some instances, “politically approved” the generated answer is.
Taken at face value, this nugget of information isn’t alarming. Still, when you think about it, you notice something that gets your armor up. These governments can manipulate the data out there (regardless of where they land on the freedom of speech debate). Again, this is a cause for concern but nothing too alarming in the grand scheme of things, right?
But what if I pointed you toward the DSR article mentioned above, precisely where I tell you that China’s weight in the region can and will sway the opinion of the authoritarian leaders in the area? Do you now see what I am getting at? You have a significant country known for its restrictions on the internet and citizens’ media consumption mixed with a “cool” and “fun” tool that gives you the answer without cited sources at a click of a button. That is a prime recipe for political propaganda. AI chatbots will tip the scales in favor of either or.
In the 80s, Robert Kahn, Director of the Information Processing Techniques Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said, “the nation that dominates the information processing field will possess the keys to world leadership.” Little did he know just how correct he would be. In the digital age, information and, by extension, data are as valuable as fiat currencies, if not more. And the key players in international politics know that and capitalize on it too. Whether it’s a “liberal-democracy”-backed AI or the digital-authoritarianism-backed one, the result is all the same. A wildfire of misinformation serving either party and tipping the scales toward either of them. At the same time, the rest of the world is stuck in the middle, trying to pick itself up and keep those political powerhouses happy.
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