Comparison of national AI strategies

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 4.2.1 AI and science fiction

If one wants to take a closer look at people’s ideas and expectations about AI, it is striking that there have been practically no independent scientific studies to date. All that can be found are studies commissioned by organizations and companies that want to position themselves on the topic of AI or that represent certain interests in dealing with AI. The ideas about AI can currently only be examined anecdotally or on the basis of artifacts.

The most powerful artifacts for this discourse are the AI strategies of governments. For example, it was a relevant signal for future expectations of AI when France presented its AI strategy, and impatient media coverage in Germany complained that Germany did not yet have one.1 2

As described by Jasanoff (cf. chapter 2.3.3), policy documents are particularly suitable for analyzing imaginaries because they help to translate future expectations into legal texts. From this point of view, Jascha Bareis and Christian Katzenbach of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society looked at and compared the AI strategies of France, the USA, and China.

“AI is currently considered as one of the key fields where the good and bad of societies and nations are negotiated. At the same time, it opens a vast space of imagination. While machine learning applications are already deployed in various contexts, the current rush to AI in politics and business is highly stimulated by the strong imaginary power of the concept of AI.”3

They show how the respective focus of these strategies can be used to gauge the perception of AI. France emphasizes the state’s role as a promoter and facilitator, calls on the public and private sectors to “pool” data, and propagates a human AI that must not turn the Promethean promise into a dystopia (cf. ibid., pp. 2-4). The U.S., on the other hand, under Trump, emphasizes deregulation and wants to use AI primarily to expand defense. Ethical considerations on AI do not appear in the strategy of the USA (cf. ibid., pp. 4-7). China has presented the most detailed plan, which - in contrast to the strategy of France and the USA - does not state ambitions but rather propagates future achievements (“we will have achieved” instead of “we want to achieve”). To this end, the Chinese government deliberately wants to use its central control to accelerate developments in AI and thus outperform other countries. According to Bareis and Katzenbach, AI is China’s universal problem solver for the country’s current challenges (ibid., pp. 7-10).

In their conclusion, Bareis and Katzenbach emphasize the performativity that emanates from these strategies:

“The national AI strategies currently popping up all around the globe constitute a peculiar hybrid of imaginary and policy measures: they reinforce and shape existing AI narratives to sketch the horizon of our digital future, and at the same time, they formulate concrete measures to rush along these avenues towards these horizons. In this way, they powerfully coproduce the very future they envision.“ (ibid., p. 10)

Many billions of dollars, euros, and yen are associated with these strategies, which are intended to support projects that fit the targeted measures and thus solidify the expressed expectations for the future.

Even if the positioning of the potentials and dangers of AI differs in the strategies, it is striking that they all start from the same premise: There is a global race for AI dominance. No one is questioning the race itself. Strategies for winning may differ, but all assume that they must be in the race. This is a strong indication that this understanding of AI as a self-evident expectation of the future is no longer questioned at the level of nation-states and has thus become a future imaginary there.

In an interview that took place after the analysis described here was published, Christian Katzenbach stated:

“I particularly miss imaginaries that highlight scenarios that do without AI, identifying domains where we do not want automatic sorting and decision making to take place. We currently seem to take for granted that AI technolo- gies will necessarily permeate every domain of society and all aspects of our lives. But this is not the case. It could be different.”4

Next Chapter: AI, future imaginaries, and futures studies

  1. cf. BVDW. (2018). BVDW zur neuen KI-Strategie in Frankreich: „So geht gute Digital- politik“. Accessed 29 May 2019 

  2. Lobo 2018 

  3. Bareis and Katzenbach 2018, p. 10 

  4. Katzenbach 2019 

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