Egmont Institute logo

New technologies, new threats, new budgets

Post thumbnail print


Generative AI today, and Quantum Computing tomorrow, pose new geopolitical realities and threats, some of which are already known. Mass de-encryption of data will be one of the threats posed by Quantum Computing.


New technologies, new threats, new budgets

Generative AI today, and Quantum Computing tomorrow, pose new geopolitical realities and threats, some of which are already known. Mass de-encryption of data will be one of the threats posed by Quantum Computing. This means that the sovereignty of a state that loses control of its data will be severely compromised, as will its ability to operate its military and security arms and many of its functions: financial services and energy are but two examples. Investing in Quantum Encryption today to counter Quantum mass de-encryption tomorrow is not a Research and Development (R&D) luxury. It is a must-have, urgently. If, in 2019, governments knew precisely what a Covid-19, a virus, meant in terms of the threat it posed to public health, economic activity, security and stability, then it would have been nothing short of a dereliction of duty had they not acted immediately, investing massively to develop vaccines. Well: we know today what Quantum mass de-encryption would cause tomorrow.

Dynamic R&D Budgets in Disruptive Technologies

Governments must abandon the notion that investing in military and security-related R&D can remain a static figure. These R&D budgets are an integral part of the resilience of the state, society and economy, as well as being a bulwark against threats to sovereignty. They must be dynamic, i.e, they should track the evolution of the geopolitical threats caused by disruptive technologies. States should not take refuge in the self-congratulatory political consensus that as long as defence spending is increasing, after a hiatus of nigh three decades, all is well. This approach of political benevolence should be discontinued without delay: disruptive technologies are changing the very nature of threats and so the strategic threat calculus must fundamentally alter. A culture change is urgent. The new culture must acknowledge that the investment by the state in this type of R&D is a survival and resilience necessity and is not simply a “defence” line expenditure in the budget.

Unlike tomorrow’s Quantum Computing threats and opportunities, Generative AI is already here. The future has arrived in terms of technology driving threats. The reason that the public R&D budget needs to track the needs of technology-induced threats is straightforward: until Generative AI, innovation and military conflict had a mutually enhancing relationship that created defined, single, and specifically identifiable threats. The nuclear bomb is an excellent example. For a short historic window, between 1945-1949, the US was the dominant power as the sole possessor of the nuclear bomb. The challenge for the other powers was a defined and concrete one, namely to reach a single identifiable objective: to build their own nuclear bombs to restore parity. Investments were made to reach that ceiling. Once that was achieved in 1949 a new strategic balance was created.

That is not the case with Generative AI because it can solve innovation problems and create new threats and opportunities continuously. In other words, there is no end-product on a stand-alone basis that when achieved restores the strategic balance. This means that defence and security-related R&D needs to track the permanently ongoing evolution of threats created by Generative AI.  As Generative AI evolves exponentially, the speed and scale of R&D will need to grow to shadow that evolution and the scale of the threats. Effectively, Generative AI is massively shrinking the innovation cycle as it has the potential to quickly solve the problems that typically beset the innovation process. This reality will need to be catered for, particularly in the defence and security areas, by enabling the relevant R&D to take place in a timely manner, and at the scale required. There is no point in developing the required antidote-technologies years later: by then the technology itself will have moved by leaps and bounds.

The Strategic “Equilibrium”: The Future Is Here

Not investing in R&D above may lead, in addition to developing serious defence and security weaknesses, to the possibility that the strategic “equilibrium” may be seriously upset. This means that an adversary that reaches a “breakout” stage may, for at best a limited time window, have a dominant position from which it can threaten other states. The nuclear analogy of 1945-1949 is very apt and should guide political thinking on the geopolitical consequences of disruptive technologies, and by consequence on related R&D budgets.

Another AI-enabled Hybrid threat is the potential for mis/disinformation. Such malign activities may not be limited to the spread of falsehoods, but critically they can also include falsifying “sources” of information.  Trust is the corner stone of democracy. Undermining trust by undermining the “sources” of information (e.g., the credible press, government, and academic institutions etc) should be confronted urgently and preventatively as a matter of critical strategic priority. This will require ramping up related defence and security budgets. The threat is already with us: The BBC, in response, have announced that they will open to the public the process through which they verify news. The greater challenge is when a source is falsely cited: The Guardian newspaper (U.K.) reported one the first cases of an article cited by AI that was never written.

Clearly, such a state-funded R&D effort, should reflect the values of our societies. The EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) explicitly articulated the need for the AI of the free democratic world to reflect its values in its summit communique eschewing and rejecting the models upon which China bases its own AI. This clear distinction will create a de facto geopolitical process in which states will be divided into allies and friends on the one hand, and those who will be counted in China’s camp, on the other. Such distinction will create a new cohort of technology-induced partnerships and alliances. This is another key reason for our governments to budget dynamically for R&D in disruptive technologies: keeping up with how Generative AI and Quantum Computing evolve will ensure that we can keep our partners and allies on side. Otherwise, they will become easy prey for adversaries, weakening our own global position.

Innovation Must Be Protected

Protecting the Intellectual property (IPs) that will be created by such R&D investment will be the key to maintaining military superiority and protecting national security. Moreover, as the state will be either a whole or part funder of these R&D activities, it will be incumbent on it to protect both taxpayers’ investments as well as its own assets. Foreign Direct Investment Screening is insufficient. EEA-based funds and companies can move within the EU Single Market freely. A hostile foreign buyer will clearly not advertise their activities. It is more likely that they will acquire IP through acquiring EU-based companies, and/or hire away scientists and engineers, clandestinely through existing vehicles based in the EEA. Therefore, it will be essential to agree an EU-wide list of disruptive and dual use technologies that will automatically require national security screening test. In other words, the FDI Screening process, which is based on the nationality of the investor, must be augmented, in so far as the designated list of technologies is concerned, by a national security screening based on the nature of the target technologies, not simply the nationality of the investor.

Conclusion: A change of Culture Is Long Overdue

Generative AI and Quantum Computing are, and will be, fundamentally changing innovation, and with it military and national security assumptions, at both the strategic and the tactical levels. The required culture change should not confine itself to politics, it should also engulf the way universities and research institutions view involvement in defence research. Governments must “put their skates on” and abandon static funding for R&D in dealing with the geopolitical consequences of disruptive technologies by aligning R&D budgets with the evolution of the threats. Survival is not just for the fittest; but mainly for the most adaptable!


(Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)