Looking back, it is fairly easy to see that the race to the moon was a geopolitical competition, an attempt to use a technological task as a proxy for answering the question of which political system was the most robust, innovative and effective. But was we enter an age of new geopolitical races, it seems much less clear what this would look like.
The first question is what the new geopolitical race between the US and China will be a race to. There are plenty of candidates: AI, quantum computing, central bank digital currency…and there is no clear leader. Even if we knew that say AI was the field of competition, it seems unclear what would be the equivalent of landing on the moon.
Producing General Artificial Intelligence is unlikely to be something that is achieved in a single push from a single country or actor, even if we imagine that the effort was organized in a Manhattan-project like way. What would the test be? That a piece of software passes the Turing test?
The Turing test sounds like a conclusive test that could rival the landing on the moon, but it has far too many subjective components to be a really interesting test of technological capability – it is, in a sense, much more a test of shallow intelligence design; the design of an intelligence that can mimic human intelligence in limited experimential contexts. Some would argue that the Turing test already has been passed in numerous cases depending on your contextual requirements, and so using this to determine the outcome of a geopolitical race seems less helpful.
Even in a highly technical area like quantum computing we find no clear test of the much discussed “quantum supremacy” (horrible term). The current holder of this title seems to be China, after a recent experiment with a problem set that was solved successfully in an hour, whereas a traditional computer would have required 8 years.
But here, as well, we are demonstrating a narrow capability that is hardly generalizable into geopolitical power. The point, or one of the points, of the space race was that it was a proxy test for organizational, technical and innovative capabilities of a nation — AI, quantum computing and similar initiatives do not qualify as such. Better technology in any of these fields are incremental geopolitical advantages, not decisive superior strategic positions.
The country that dominated space could literally also use that advantage to control what happened on earth.
Interestingly we lived through a mini-geopolitical race during the pandemic – the race to a vaccine – and here we see something else: when it comes to medicine and to vaccines Russia and China were first, China in June, and Russia in August – but the test was determined not by a documented technological feat, as much as government approval of the new vaccine.
The mRNA-vaccines that the US managed to produced were instead hailed as the greatest medical innovation and accomplishment that we have seen in a long time (and arguably rightly so, although it did not happen in a year, the science had been around and the companies working on mRNA had looked at the vaccine problem for a lot longer) – and so the US seems to have, in the eyes of the world, won that race. It was not just being first that counted, but also the world admitting that you were the first.
The geopolitical nature of the race were clear – and if anyone missed it, Russia called their vaccine Sputnik – but the outcomes were not as obvious. Who won?
So, what does this imply for the future? It could evolve in a number of ways – clear tests for any of the existing technologies could emerge, or the field of competition might shift into areas where such tests exist – such as fighting cancer. The ability to cure the more common forms of cancer would be a feat close to the moon landing. Another area that could be interesting is energy technology – an order of magnitude more efficient solar power technology could be another field that would give a lasting geopolitical advantage to the country able to produce it.
But maybe the geopolitical competition we are now seeing will not converge on the mental model of a “race” where you need to get there first, but instead be organized more like frontier where the winner is the one who advances the entire field of science the most; it is the sum total state of technological capability that counts.
One thing that would support this hypothesis is that the technologies we are looking at here support each-other. Quantum computing could change AI and revolutionize medical science. Instead of a race, what we see looks more like the strengthening of a network of technical capacity – a general technological capability.
Winning that is much more complex than winning a race, and requires a much more thoughtful approach to R&D. The good thing is that it can be a distributed effort between different countries. The idea that R&D strategies and innovation programmes should be national may have served out its usefulness.
One possible scenario would be a NATO for technological innovation and science emerging to balance the Chinese efforts – sharing innovation across geopolitical lines rather than national ones.