Whatever gaps exist between China and the United States, those differences will pale in comparison between these two AI superpowers and the rest of the world.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs love to describe their products as “democratizing access,” “connecting people,” and, of course, “making the world a better place.” That vision of technology as a cure-all for global inequality has always been something of a wistful mirage, but in the age of AI it could turn into something far more dangerous. If left unchecked, AI will dramatically exacerbate inequality on both international and domestic levels. It will drive a wedge between the AI superpowers and the rest of the world, and may divide society along class lines that mimic the dystopian science fiction.
As a technology and an industry, AI naturally gravitates toward monopolies. Its reliance on data for improvement creates a self-perpetuating cycle: better products lead to more users, those users lead to more data, and that data leads to even better products, and thus more users and data. Once a company has jumped out to an early lead, this kind of ongoing repeating cycle can turn that lead into an insurmountable barrier to entry for other firms.
Chinese and American companies have already kick-started this process, leaping out to massive leads over the rest of the world. Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and a few other countries play host to top-notch talent and research labs, but they often lack the other ingredients needed to become true AI superpowers: a large base of users and a vibrant entrepreneurial and venture-capital ecosystem.
Other than London’s DeepMind, we have yet to see groundbreaking AI companies emerge from these countries. All of the seven AI giants (Google, Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, Baidu, Tencent) and an overwhelming portion of the best AI engineers are already concentrated in the United States and China. They are building huge stores of data that are feeding into a variety of different product verticals, such as self-driving cars, language translation, autonomous drones, facial recognition, natural-language processing, and much more. The more data these companies accumulate, the harder it will be for companies in any other countries to ever compete.
I fear this process will exacerbate and significantly grow the divide between the AI haves and have-nots. While AI-rich countries rake in astounding profits, countries that haven’t crossed a certain technological and economic threshold will find themselves slipping backward and falling farther behind. With manufacturing and services increasingly done by intelligent machines located in the AI superpowers, developing countries will lose the one competitive edge that their predecessors used to kick-start development: low-wage factory labor.
Large populations of young people used to be these countries’ greatest strengths. But in the age of AI, that group will be made up of displaced workers unable to find economically productive work. This sea change will transform them from an engine of growth to a liability on the public ledger—and a potentially explosive one if their governments prove unable to meet their demands for a better life.
Deprived of the chance to claw their way out of poverty, poor countries will stagnate while the AI superpowers take off. I fear this ever-growing economic divide will force poor countries into a state of near-total dependence and subservience. Their governments may try to negotiate with the superpower that supplies their AI technology, trading market and data access for guarantees of economic aid for their population. Whatever bargain is struck, it will not be one based on agency or equality between nations.