Today, artificial intelligence, or AI as it is often shortened, is at the core of software programmes translating between languages, identifying cancer in medical images, recognizing faces in photographs, analysing satellite pictures to track climate changes, improving hospital care, and predicting the weather. It has been ten years since the world’s best chess player was a human, and today AI models and their applications diagnose better than most medical doctors and solve entry exams to prestigious universities like a breeze. These programmes go to the core of what we think of as unique human capabilities: our ability to reason. And they make us reflect: What makes man? What defines us as humans? Homo Sapiens are defined by their symbiotic relationship with tools and technology. Technologies are physical and mental extensions of ourselves, so tightly interwoven that we see the world through them. A simple example is that with the arrival of the pendulum clocks in the town squares in the middle ages, we started to see the world, the universe, ourselves, and society as clockwork. Now it is information processing.
Technology constantly transforms our economies and societies giving nations economic might, wealth, military independence, and capacity for societal development and meeting grand challenges. The nations that lead in technological innovations tend to dominate militarily, and politically. Technology is thus a major redistributor of power among nations and a major force shaping and reshaping international relations. As technological might shifts, so does power.
And so will the amazing power of the new AI models and their applications create a far-reaching redistribution of international power. Of course, no transformation is driven by a single technology alone. AI stands on the shoulders of enormous developments in computing power, data availability, the Internet, cloud services, digital infrastructure, programming platforms, downloadable programme modules and open-source code, just to name a few. But in this knowledge-driven, digital economy, AI is the defining technology and the primary indicator of technological prowess.
It is no wonder that technological might and AI have been at the top of the minds of national leaders across the world. Five years ago, Vladimir Putin said that the country that takes the lead in artificial intelligence will rule the world. Four years ago, in her inauguration speech, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, set technological sovereignty as the EU’s top priority. But Europe does not dominate technologically anymore, that position shifted to the US many years ago. Four years after Van der Leyen’s speech and billions of Euros spent by the European Union, Europe is even further behind. Now technological capability and capacity are shifting again towards a duo-political global domination by the USA and China.
Sitting in an office in a small nation far north in Europe, writing for a magazine that is read across nations in the Gulf and beyond, makes me think you and I have something in common. We wonder where technology will lead us, where it will lead our companies, and how we can make use of it. And we wonder who controls this technology. Will it be a few very large technology companies in two globally domineering nations?
It is said that in the tech economy, there is no bronze medal. The conventional wisdom has been that American technology companies depend on elite researchers, impressively expensive hardware, and enormous investments to outperform the rest of the world. But these advantages are no longer key to harnessing the power of AI. The open-source movement, advancements in cloud computing, public APIs, software libraries, knowledge sharing, online education, regulation, antitrust measures, data privacy, and advanced technology, are getting increasingly more accessible.
The big three
In order to take back control, or even compete, there are three challenges the world needs to overcome. The first is language corpus. The large language models harness enormous amounts of data from the internet. This means that more than half the corpus is in English and the rest is spread over other languages. Only 0.1 per cent of the web pages in the world are in Norwegian, and 0.7 per cent in Arabic. Hence ChatGPT is much better in English. The solution is of course to invest in national or regional projects that train large local language models.
The second hurdle is talent availability. The competition for AI talent is fierce, and currently concentrated in a few regions. The obvious long-term solution is to invest in our education systems to foster a new generation of AI experts. The Gulf region could borrow a long-term goal from the AI organization CLAIRE: The vision of a lighthouse for AI, a beacon for talent, and a hub for cutting-edge AI. Not only would that be a symbol of excellence and ambition for all of the world, but also a world-class computational facility, a central landmark, and a location for the Arab AI community to work on really large, visionary and exciting projects.
The third barrier is investment. AI technology advancement is a costly endeavour, and not all nations believe they have the financial resources to invest heavily in it. Yet, the alternative is to risk falling further behind in the global race. The reality is money has to be spent, and probably an order of magnitude more than any number that will be discussed politically.
Overall, while the challenges faced by small regions or nations in AI development are significant, they are not insurmountable. With strategic investment, international cooperation, and a commitment to education and infrastructure development, regions can participate meaningfully in the shifting sands of the global AI landscape.
Morten Irgens is a founding director of the Confederation of Laboratories of Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe (CLAIRE), the Artificial Intelligence, Data and Robotics Association (Adra), and the Norwegian Artificial Intelligence Research Consortium (NORA). He is Vice Rector of Research of Kristiania, and founder of Actenum Corporation, a company with global sales of AI based optimization and decision-support systems for the oil and gas industry. CLAIRE is the world’s largest organisation of AI researchers, with 450 AI labs, research groups and institutes as members.