8 min read
15 Apr

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates AI deployment will add $15.7 trillion to global GDP by 2030. China is predicted to take home $7 trillion of that total, nearly double North America’s $3.7 trillion in gains. As the economic balance of power tilts in China’s favor, so too will political influence and “soft power,” the country’s cultural and ideological footprint around the globe. 

Kai-Fu Lee 


Artificial Intelligence (AI) has already begun to change our world, the way we do business, the way we do war, our political strategies and the way we conduct our conflicts. Regardless of our utopian or dystopian views of these events, there are a few existing AI realties that current political and business leaders should bear in mind, and act on with urgency. As with all conflicts, timing and sequence play a vital role, turning a given theoretical strategy into success or failure. 

How AI influences and steers our conflicts 

Artificial intelligence has many definitions and different understandings, and no purpose will be served for our current investigation in getting side-tracked into these fascinating side issues of definition, whether artificial general intelligence (AGI) will be reached (and when) and so on. We are already living in the Age of AI, the AI Revolution, and the more productive, responsible question for leadership globally is how to respond to the developments that are already here, and those that will be with us in the immediate future. 

The correct strategy in modern times is not to be in the right place only now, but to know when and where the next right place will be. In the sense that we then use it here, these AI conflicts can differ on a spectrum from open, direct conflict on battlefields, economic markets, employment drivers to more subtle, but no less real and threatening, conflicts battling it out for data control, the manufacturing and dissemination of information and knowledge, surveillance and how we understand and approach ourselves and our personal conflicts. 

At stake is not just financial outcomes, but the very shaping and maintenance of our realities. It is important to understand that anyone, any corporation, nation or entity that seeks to limit our rights, change our realities or take control of our freedoms are in conflict with us. From this perspective we find advanced technology already affecting our world, our work, our conflicts, even the very concept of what it means to be human. Across the spectrum of the traditional AI concept, neuro-technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology, these influences are already indelibly stamped, not so much asking us for cooperation or acceptance or approval, but guiding our lives. 

Even a brief summary of examples of these influences and results will require and deserve a more comprehensive assessment, which I will deal with in my upcoming book. For our present purposes we can accept, as is visible to the most casual observer that this advanced technology is already shaping our conflicts on global, national and personal stages, and that prudent and wise political leadership will educate themselves as to the potential of these AI developments, and plan and act accordingly, in good time. 

The AI Arms Race 

I expect that, just as with nuclear technology and other examples before that in history, we will see an arms race for artificial intelligence (including the other, related areas that I have mentioned above) between (at least) the US, China and to a slightly lesser extent, Russia. With data and computing power still being fairly predictive of success and growth in these fields, and the de facto blurring between the state and private actors in these areas, that we are already well advanced in a form of neo-colonialism, where the big three as above will soon have such an advanced position in AI that those left behind will simply never be able to catch up. 

The chasm opening between these parties will become permanent, and only selected instances of development, sales and sharing will be allowed, alternatively this difference will be used for blatant exploitation and even oppression. It is naïve, in my view, and not borne out by the current global experience, to expect truly open borders as far as the meaningful benefits of AI are concerned, certainly not in anything worthwhile and outside the scope of apps that assists the more advanced countries with more data harvesting. 

As the saying goes, data is the new oil, and if we do not manage our current and imminent conflicts properly most countries outside the big three will end up being more of the product than the producer, or even the raw material to make the product, if you will. To see this growing conflict, and to understand its tremendous implications and the urgency of its timescale is therefore a crucial first step that any smaller government should take. It would be naïve, and greatly irresponsible, to miss the simple but strategically crucial point that countries, all countries, will be competing with each other for a sufficient share of AI knowledge, equipment and benefits. Just like with so many other disparities in international asset or risk management or dispersion, just like strategic alliances are sought and fostered in obtaining benefits arising from say oil, platinum, manufacturing and so on, the wise modern state will ensure that this AI chasm does not find its people on the wrong side thereof. But these looming AI conflicts are not just generically the same as those other resource or risk conflicts. 

They will demand a very high level of understanding of both the causes and drivers of these conflicts, of the developing AI global and local picture, and, maybe above all, a dynamic and new type of political and business leader. Let us look at a few of the specific challenges that will be facing the South African government if they wish to prepare and participate in these conflicts, and not just wait until it becomes time to say, in unison with a lot of other countries, “what happened?” 

Positioning South Africa 

Given our current political and economic crises, lack of effective political leadership and struggling economy, I believe that it is inevitable, and in fact already noticeable, that we will increasingly fall behind in this AI arms race. In fairness, I do not think that even at our best we would have been able to stay on the other side of the chasm. To expect a smaller country to keep up with arms race Big Three would, from its inception, a big and unrealistic expectation. But, as we see in our assessment here, there are certainly prudent and urgent strategies for such smaller nations to adopt. This debate is not primarily one of political posturing, sovereignty or normal politicking. 

Getting the AI conflict right, or wrong, involves matters of the state’s security, ability to compete and to provide its citizens with the outcomes agreed to in their particular social compact. AI will change politics drastically, from deep fakes and influence, maybe in time calling into question the very need for politics in its present form. Politicians have a unique opportunity and responsibility to lead effectively, responsibly and urgently, and in entirely new way. 

The benefits of AI, and the option of opting out 

AI will affect and change just about all areas of human endeavour, from state security, internal surveillance and policing, warfare, global and international commerce, entertainment, personal interaction and job creation. This will manifest in government administration, internal security, system interfaces, service delivery and growing the economy. Artificial intelligence will not just drive economic growth, but be part of the production and direction of goods, services and new benefits. 

Economies will be built on and around the application of this new technology, and will include, as a separate but seamlessly integrated whole such other fields and disciplines as neurotechnology, robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Being able to participate in these economies, both locally and internationally, will be standard, the imperative, not an option. The option to simply not participate, if anyone should be considering this, would simply not be feasible in the long run, for many reasons. Such a country would, within a short number of years, either find itself completely isolated economically or, at best, relegated to a minor consumer of these AI products, begging at the table of the countries that managed to thrive in this all important conflict. 

While conventional wisdom identifies data as the “new oil” and the direction of future economic growth and welfare, and a country can of course generate its own data to an extent, this completely misunderstands how data capitalism works, and will furthermore fall flat at the first hurdle, in that without artificial intelligence interpreting and applying it, data is virtually useless. 

The new state boundaries and the opportunities for private enterprise 

As we can see already from global experience in even the last decade, the boundaries of state and private enterprise in developing and expanding enterprise, economic growth and new technologies worldwide have grown increasingly more blurred, so as to be all but imaginary in some instances. The Chinese experience, with the actual composition of organizations such as WeChat, Huawei and TikTok being a hybrid of state and private interests, is an illustrative example, with Western corporations like Google and Amazon showing convincingly that private enterprise can develop and market global products as easily, at this stage at least, as a government can. The responsibilities, challenges and opportunities that we then find resting on the South African government can, and should, be taken up by our private sector as well, either in partnership or as separate projects. 

Localized opportunities 

One of the ways in which a small country can improve its strategic position in the AI arms race is to form strong bonds with one of the AI superpowers, and to then provide a supporting role in data provision, manufacturing of specific supportive products or services and with localized production facilities. On the extent of such a supportive role in helping small states find a meaningful role in the AI conflicts, Dr. Reuben Steff, a global security and foreign policy expert, is rather blunt: “One way to alleviate this is for small states to focus on making niche AI contributions and local optimization of AI that support allied nations’ intelligence and defence capabilities.” 

Specific strategies and considerations for the AI conflict 

A state such as South Africa will then be well advised to bear in mind a few of the current AI conflict realities in designing and pursuing in their AI strategies and policies. The first would be the simple, observable fact that the regulation and control of the creation, content, application and distribution of these technologies will, at the very least for the foreseeable future, be extremely difficult to manage and enforce, if at all. This global porousness may have strategic advantages, but also tremendous disadvantages. 

There is, as one example, no practical way of forcing a group of states or organizations of sharing this technology equitably, or at all, or conversely, to limit such sharing. While there are quite a few formal international documents and policy papers (eg at the level of the UN, EU and by all three the big AI powers) in existence that seek to formalize and regulate such development, these documents are generally drafted as guide documents, and questions jurisdiction, application and so on will make them rather ineffective, at least for now, especially in some of the current hot button AI conflict topics such as the creation and dissemination of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) and surveillance technology.

 A second guiding principle at this stage should also be the again observable fact that the speed of AI creation and deployment by far outstrips the ability, or willingness, of most governments to participate in or regulate such development. This, again, can be a factor that aids such a country, or inhibits it, depending on the specific strategy applied. Dr. Steff proposes three specific main strategies for a country in South Africa’s position at this stage: 

1. Pragmatic multilateralism and international co-operation Positioning a state optimally in the AI arms race will require great and ongoing diplomatic skill. This will include striking the right balance with the Big Two/Three, or ensuring a lasting beneficial relationship with at least one of them, as well as beneficial relationships and agreements with strategically identified other smaller states. 

2. The diplomatic toolkit will have to be recalibrated 

At both capital and embassy levels, the AI arms race will change the way diplomacy gets done on a variety of practical levels. Developments in all of the fields we mentioned above, from governments, private tech firms (existing and new) and military and security technology, will need to be monitored efficiently and constantly in order to safeguard domestic best economic and security interests. Policy makers will need to make data-informed decisions at rapid pace simply in order to keep up with colleagues and competitors, all driven by the abilities of artificial intelligence. 

3. Understand and assess the ongoing foundations of AI power 

This brings us to a modernized understanding, at a very advanced level, of the causes and drivers of this particular conflict, the AI arms race. We already see a gradual escalation thereof, at the very least between the US and China, in talent and development acquisition, funds allocated, rhetoric and several other causes of tension and polarization, and this will increase and intensify rapidly in the immediate future. Inevitably, this will include everyone else one way or another. The generation and use of data and other technologies will make standard geographical considerations of less importance, and conventional international conflict strategies will need extensive revision. This will include an understanding and effective use of data manipulation, talent education and managing, youth guidance and deployment, backing such strategies with sufficient computing hardware and software, encouraging AI development and adaptation, public/private partnerships and a whole-of-society approach to AI and its risk-benefit dynamics. 


Artificial intelligence can change the futures of smaller, struggling countries. It can be a great leveller of economic possibilities, it can make security concerns easier to manage, it can reduce or neutralize military disadvantages resulting from being a smaller state, it can negate geographical obstacles – or it can serve to further entrench economic, political and developmental divides, this time probably permanently. AI (in the sense that I have used it above) is already among us, ubiquitous and developing at a pace that will not wait for the slow learners. 

In the background looms the crucial debates about issues such as the universal basic income (UBI) concept in all its different manifestations, security and privacy concerns, and all the concerns flowing from what is in effect a potential neo-colonization process that is happening right in front of us. Avoiding this is a naïve shirking of responsibility, waiting for others to get into place and then starting to develop the abovementioned strategies and capabilities will be too little too late, leaving such a country permanently at a tremendous economic, political and security disadvantage. 

This should be an exciting, life-changing opportunity for the South African government. They should grasp these new beginnings with all hands, as a matter of the greatest urgency and importance. While the manner in which they have conducted themselves in these issues, at a level that required far less complex thinking, planning and execution, leaves one rather despondent that they would be up to the task, this is nevertheless a fresh opportunity for them to drastically improve all of the areas that they should be concerned about – from employment to service delivery, from education to security, all efficiently addressed by these new technologies. 

For this they would need to comprehensively understand the new rules, the new risks, the new possibilities of this new, unique global conflict. Even on the popular, rosy view of a new government, or a coalition government a year from now, that is a lifetime away in terms of the AI arms race. Here, as in so many of our other South African conflicts, we have run out of time, we are already behind. It is concerning that we may be so caught up with our current political and socio-economic problems and challenges that we completely lose sight of this larger conflict, its consequences and its opportunities. 

There will be little benefit if we miss this world-changing revolution but manage to solve our current problems. Conversely, getting the AI conflict right will resolve our current problems. Advantages, disadvantages and disparities created or allowed to develop now could well prove to be fatal and permanent. 

The South African voter has a responsibility to be sufficiently engaged with this topic so as to make an informed decision on what is necessary, to influence their chosen political leaders to implement timeously what is necessary, and to hold our leaders accountable. The consequences of also getting this conflict wrong are significantly worse than our current predicament.   

(I develop this, and many other conflict topics in my upcoming book on artificial intelligence and how it will be influencing or political, economic and personal conflicts, due for publication later this year).

Selected reading recommendations  

1. Artificial Intelligence – implications for small states, essay by Reuben Steff, Routledge (2021) 

2. The political philosophy of AI, by Mark Coeckelbergh, Polity Press (2022) 

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request. This article is part of a series of topics that are being written as discussion pieces in the overriding debate on cultural intelligence (CQ), intercultural mediation and our South African conflicts.

 (Andre Vlok can be contacted at andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information)

 (c) Andre Vlok 

April 2023

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