On the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, world leaders again find themselves at the door of another great power competition. This one is over the ability of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to influence political persuasion, unlock new economic potential, reduce the impact of uneven access to critical resources, manipulate social media, and threaten national security interests. As all nations compete around AI, they are integrating themselves into the biggest contest for global power since the second world war. This competition is not over land or resources, but rather we are all competing for data and technology and the power and control they can deliver.

Potentially the most transformative and decisive of AI technologies, the adoption and decisive use of machine learning (ML) carries the potential to determine winners and losers on the political and commercial stages.  Savvy political leaders understand that the shrewd application of ML can influence the political information environment, rapidly revitalize lagging economies, create and control conflict, and eventually combine with future technologies to deliver decisive capabilities and outcomes in real-time. As a result, democratic and autocratic governments alike are vying to formulate and adopt AI policies that will give them an economic and security advantage over their competitors. Forecasting the inevitably unequal progress and adoption of these technologies is key to understanding and predicting how governments will respond to and formulate policies around the fluctuating relationship between artificial intelligence trends, national preparedness, inequality, and security.

AI in information flows will potentially drive the most extensive regulations as those information streams determine what citizens know or perceive about their own countries and the events within them as well as what they know and understand about global happenings. AI influence in social and mainstream media deeply concerns political leaders and contenders.  “Fake news,” deep fake videos, propaganda, and misinformation all have the potential to shape and determine political outcomes. Moreover, accurate information is vital to executive government decisions and policies regarding defense and national security policies, fiscal and monetary policies, social and cultural policies, and political decision-makers could struggle to discern factual data from technologically influenced information.

In conventional geopolitical thinking, geography and access to resources determine a state’s power, but with the recent improvements and proliferation of AI, geography and access to physical resources matter less than technology and access to factual data. World leaders understand that, as AI improves, it will increasingly make manufacturing, transportation, and trade more efficient, drastically improve agriculture processes and crop yields, reshuffle labor markets, and level the global economic playing field. As these technologies deliver the information that maximizes a country’s economic output, governments are sprinting to build corresponding digital infrastructure, collect and control digital data, and design AI infrastructure that best serves their individual and collective national interests.

The uneven global adoption, mastery, and implementation of AI has already challenged governance, management, and growth models, and many argue it has exacerbated socioeconomic disparities, contributed to socially unjust policies, and created serious ethical, security, and public trust concerns. If data is the new currency of the 21st century, as the volume of data increases, the battle to own and control how states and businesses alike collect and use that data will become the next area of great power competition. Most democracies are experiencing increasing public criticism of technologies that harvest data for commercial purposes, public surveillance, and security. These criticisms are quickly becoming social lightning rods, and technology companies are already in the crosshairs. It’s only a matter of time before those criticisms translate into regulatory and compliance burdens with stiff fines and penalties.

These decisive technologies will see well-established power dynamics built on a world in which relationships, alliances, and partnerships directly translated into power, shift to one in which technology, data, and information dominance are key to holding power, potentially threatening the foundations of global peace and security. This transformation will catalyze a profound paradigm shift in national security and the architectures of modern militaries.

At the same time, these governments are also racing to emplace regulatory restrictions and limitations that will work in tandem with that infrastructure to maximize their AI benefits and minimize their AI risks. And as AI becomes increasingly integrated into society, global governance concerns will focus on themes such as AI bias and ethical standards to guide its fair and equitable use.

The geopolitics of AI will challenge the status quo in ways we can only imagine now that the AI genie is out of the bottle. We can expect to see its power manifest in global political, economic, and security policies along with policies and regulations designed to control that power, maintain a domestic advantage, ensure transparency and accountability, and keep peers and competitors at bay. States that successfully cultivate and harness AI will achieve their economic and security goals faster than those that continue to rely on legacy infrastructure and economic models to sustain their global competitiveness. States that cannot do that, will seek to limit the damage from those that can. As economic and military superpowers like the US and China vie for global influence, AI will be essential to the balance of power.