In light of the new technologies that surround us or emerge (5G, artificial intelligence, cyber, robots, space, laser, quantum, etc.), can we draw the contours of a new geopolitics?
Today, if we reflect on the issue of defense innovation, we can clearly see that there has been a major paradigm shift. Within innovation, civil, dual and defense, the profile of the ecosystem has changed enormously. This is often groundbreaking innovation today by highly specialized companies and this innovation is very fast. This was not the case fifty or even thirty years ago. This raises the question of the adaptation of leaders to this development. One of the most problematic is the national framework or that of a group of nations. Take the latest example of the health crisis. Who “leads the dance” today? Pfizer, Modern. What have the states done? They went to pay and beg. The Covid crisis is a laboratory where we see the reactivity of our society to a problem that requires innovation, and where everyone ultimately tends to become selfish. Defense is no different.
With regard to the question of the new technological geopolitics, today there is clearly a polarization between the United States and China. Then you have Russia, possibly Europe, Singapore, India, Australia. Thirty years ago, we would have wondered what the innovation potential of such a state was. Today, this question has sat in the back seat.
In fact, if we take the most relevant technologies, we have artificial intelligence (AI), the second quantum revolution, which is coming in a rich and complex way, and space.
In terms of AI, the best groups are the GAFAMs, followed by many start-ups designed to be integrated into these groups. These are established in many countries, which may have different laws, different interests (in terms of defense, economy, etc.). The primary interest of these large groups is not to serve a nation, but to make money. But for them, the ideal conditions for this are conditions for global peace. Conflict, even justified, does not serve them. Their economic structures mean that they can not enrich themselves by serving the defense of this or that country.
However, a nuance of this technology must be made. We are often led to believe that it will solve all our problems in five to ten years. It’s more complicated than that. Yes, AI will do interesting things, simplify life in some cases, save time, but we will not in the medium term manage to have a machine that we will interact naturally with, for example as HAL in 2001 or as with sci-fi movie androids.
For quantum technologies, it is more complicated. Several states have invested heavily in this area. For the technologies that are succeeding (quantum sensors and detection), this money is enough, or almost. But as soon as you touch on the quantum computer problem, I think that is no longer the case. The money invested may be enough locally, but not globally, except perhaps in China. We thus fall back on private organizations, such as IBM or Google. You also have start-ups that are supposed to be more independent, but let’s not forget that they are destined to be swallowed up by large groups who are moving themselves.
Finally, space gives the impression that the notion of the state still has a meaning. But look at Elon Musk and NASA. The latter has become dependent on a private group for technological and economic reasons. The relationship between Musk and NASA is an example of a trend that will grow. So far, only China has a special status. On the one hand, you have the large GAFAM-type groups that want to trade with China, and on the other hand, a country that is held by a very strong power, of totalitarian type, at least not democratic like us, let’s hear it. China is investing massively in money and human resources in all that is quantum calculation and space. It is therefore in competition with large private corporations that in turn want to trade with it in an environment of peace. We are thus witnessing a strategic development. Will our states in twenty or thirty years maintain or restore autonomy over all these technologies, or is it already too late? I think it’s safe to say that NASA today thinks it’s too late. Its actions speak in this direction, simply because it no longer manages to fulfill its missions in the traditional way, as it did ten or twenty years ago.
Ultimately, this technological chessboard has, on the one hand, the countries that could be classified as democratic, and, on the other hand, China and the large private international groups, but of American origin, which have colossal budgets and which have their own interests. These groups are the catalyst for at least 50% of the progress.
And Europe? France? How do they fit into this new technological chessboard? Are they adequately equipped (researchers, institutes, companies, etc.) to compete with these “heavyweights”?
Europe could do more, but it’s complicated. It has excellent scientists, often better than certain American groups. But as a “country”, or association of countries, it struggles to make the minimum. The order is scattered: Germany is increasingly dependent on Google for quantum computers; France has a quantum plan, but it has not really started yet; and Britain goes alone outside the Union. When it comes to AI, most of the research is done in European versions of American groups.
One of the major issues that people often forget is related to the specific organization of each country. The problems of harmonization are such that the administrations give up.
Defense Europe, for example, is straining the legs of the France-Germany duo. However, the organizational differences between the two countries are such that it is very complicated to launch joint projects.
If we now have to compare France with the United States, the latter has a significant advantage: size. A thousand people thinking of a problem often converge faster than ten. On the other hand, Americans admit that several groups are working on the same problem to solve it. Mistakes are not a concern, nor is money. In France, the traditional philosophy is that taxpayers’ money should not be wasted. Add to that the fact that France is still a highly centralized country, while the United States is a federal country. This leads to a policy that assigns a given problem to only one group. But that is starting to change with the Defense Innovation Agency (AID), which seems to have embedded a culture of risk-taking.
This economic issue is crucial. For example, the US DARPA launches programs for which it funds the research of European scientists. As a result, we are teaming up with French and European researchers working for the US Defense Research Agency. This is the reality on earth.
Can we predict a “technological clash” between Beijing and Washington, or even the major technological groups?
I want to tell you an anecdote. A few years ago, a senior American politician told me something that amazed me about his openness. He told me that in the event of a conflict with China or Russia, the United States could requisition all the technologies of the major American groups.
Today, this discourse seems completely outdated to me. Private groups are making more and more money and accumulating data. However, these data are gold bars because they are the ones that make it possible to test and improve algorithms, classical today and quantum tomorrow. In ten or twenty years, these large groups will thus be able to bend states, first in a covert way, then openly. As a result, the technology battle between China and the United States may become the battle that will never happen.
The question that arises is “what is the ultimate goal of large groups?”. For today, universities, public or private, do not supply enough engineers in quantum or even AI. From then on, partnerships were created between these groups and certain universities, such as what was concluded between Google and Polytechnique. It is very realistic, but in the long run we can imagine moving training that is completely controlled by private groups. The question of their ultimate goal arises: is it purely financial? Will they go further, by educating young people, leaders? How to avoid this? Just look at what is happening today in the US or Europe to limit the power of large corporations (access to data, monopoly, etc.). But do we really want to break these GAFAM, or even slow them down?
Let us not forget that everything that is done in AI mainly comes from these groups, which in addition attract talents with more than attractive remuneration, or receive many brilliant students from all over the world.
When it comes to quantum, there are things that already work in the areas of quantum sensors and sensing. On this issue, nation states, including Europe and France, are not at a disadvantage. Israel is also a big player in this area, as in others. On the other hand, for all that is quantum calculation, it’s more complicated. Many will talk about a five-year horizon to reach the first quantum computer for general purposes. I myself will be much more careful. But who can say what will happen in the meantime? What will become of China? What will become of the United States? Europe?
What is certain is that there is one country where the strategy of large corporations is complicated to implement: China. The central state is very strong there, ubiquitous, and it is investing massively. As a result, in twenty years’ time we may find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where Beijing wants more control over science than our countries, which are subordinate to these groups.
Interview by Areion 24 News.