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Four Battlegrounds: 8 Key Ideas

8 Key Ideas Book Review Non-Fiction Book Review

Artificial intelligence is, without a doubt, one of the greatest technological and cultural disruptors of our time. This thought-provoking book examines how AI could also influence global power dynamics.

8 KTAs Battlegrounds BOOK COVERFour Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Paul Scharre

Consider Four Battlegrounds for these online reading challenge tasks:

  1. PopSugar Reading Challenge 2023. #12: A book published in spring 2023. (Technically February 28, 2023–but close enough.)
  2. 52 Book Club Reading Challenge 2024. #23: The other book with the similar plot. (Complements History of Artificial Intelligence)

AI changes everything: Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence in summary

Global power is measured in different ways, but one thing is sure: Countries that harness the power of AI will have a significant global advantage over those that don’t. Author Paul Scharre explores what the ramifications of AI leadership could mean in a global context. Scharre discusses a range of topics relevant to domestic and international relations, including human rights and AI-powered warfare. Meticulously researched and expertly explained, Four Battlegrounds provides food for thought as it paints pictures of a future both exciting and worrisome.

The dangers from AI aren’t the dangers science fiction warned us about. We needn’t fear robots rising up to throw off their human overlords, or at least not anytime soon. The dangers from AI today come from people using the technology maliciously or carelessly, causing harm to others.

8 key ideas in Four Battlegrounds

1. AI prowess will translate to international power.

Prior to the industrial revolution, power was most closely tied to population and geographic size. After the industrial revolution, technology access and adoption became the most crucial underpinnings of military and economic power. The ability to harness and wield AI will become a similar proxy for power in the coming decades.

To use AI to shape the information environment, nations must be able to build tech platforms that dominate the information ecosystem, such as Facebook or WeChat, along with platform governance rules that advance their national interests. Because AI is such a diffuse technology, many countries will have access to the necessary inputs. How nations apply these raw inputs will have a tremendous influence on how the AI revolution unfolds.

2. The U.S. and China are two clear AI leaders.

AI leadership is measured by different indices evaluating a variety of measures, including funding and published research. A country must have significant access to pipelines of data, compute power, talent, and institutions (universities, companies, etc.) to develop and maintain AI leadership. While specifics vary, the U.S. and China are clearly at the top.

While the specific metrics vary, many researchers have come to similar conclusions, which one group summarized as: “the United States currently leads in AI, with China rapidly catching up, and the European Union behind both.” These indices consider national AI capabilities across a number of areas, including funding, data, hardware, research, development, talent, and adoption. Some indices also include infrastructure, the operating environment, and government strategy.

3. Challenges in adapting to a commercial mindset could hinder militaristic adoption of AI.

The U.S. military stands to benefit significantly from AI. However, their processes tend to be mired to a previous era of dealing with large, lumbering defense contractors. Much AI innovation is happening in small companies, startups, and tech companies. At times, tech company employees have an aversion to working with the U.S. military, which further complicates the Department of Defense’s ability to leverage AI.

This was a novel problem for the military. Defense contractors like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics had never objected on principle to working with the military—it was their entire business model … DoD leaders were wholly unprepared to navigate a new social landscape in which they had to defend their projects and court AI engineers’ involvement.

4. Repressive use of AI technology represents a significant threat to humanity.

Oppressive regimes like China could use AI to intensify surveillance of citizens in order to exert harmful influence and pressure. For example, China is developing AI tools to step up oppression of its racial minorities. Currently, its massive troves of data are largely disconnected, but integration of and AI applications using that data could be dangerous.

Police cloud computing data centers, which are being implemented in numerous cities and provinces across China, include not only criminal records, facial recognition, and other biometric data, but also addresses, religious affiliations, medical records, birth control records, travel bookings, online purchases, package deliveries, and social media comments.

5. Uncertainties about AI’s dangers abound.

New generative AI tools allow more users to create false information that could improperly influence elections, among other nefarious uses. Yet academics, politicians, and business leaders differ in their assessment of the potential dangers and harms, and thus there is a mixed approach to how AI research is published and capabilities are brought to market.

Algorithms can promote or demote political content, subtly censoring the public square ... Dictators benefit in a world where nothing can be trusted, and truth is whatever the powerful say it is … The long-term effect could be to undermine public confidence in what is real, hastening a “post-truth” information landscape in which public opinion is driven by emotion and beliefs rather than facts.

6. The U.S. must work with China strategically to retain AI power.

While the countries are often at odds, they are connected in many ways. Strategic cooperation must occur on a sensible “spectrum” that doesn’t skew toward extremes, especially as it pertains to chip prowess (the U.S. should act to retain is lead) and flow of talent (the U.S. should continue to recruit experts from around the world). The U.S. must be constantly mindful that China’s military infrastructure is tightly joined to many of its academic and private institutions as well.

U.S. policymakers are just now waking up to the reality that they are joined at the hip with a nation that is also a strategic competitor.

7. AI security will become an ongoing concern.

AI systems are brittle and easily broken. Malicious AI tampering, such as data poisoning or supply chain attack, could have devastating consequences. There are ways, for example, to manipulate AI vision recognition into seeing things that aren’t there, such as seeing a speed limit sign instead of a stop sign.

The problem isn’t that AI systems don’t work. The problem is that they do work, and they can often work quite well, but when pushed outside the boundaries of their design, they can suddenly and unexpectedly fail. Even worse, AI engineers themselves may not know ahead of time the boundaries of a system’s behavior. Because those designing AI systems are creating powerful tools that they themselves don’t fully understand.

8. AI warfare could radically change the outcome of human history.

AI does not fight or strategize like a human, nor do AI systems have the same vulnerabilities, concerns, or moral hesitations of humans, all considerations that can not only trigger but also change the shape of war. AI warfare could have extreme impacts on how battles are fought and wars waged. The impact on humanity could be positive or catastrophic.

War with AI systems will remain violent and chaotic, but AI systems will not be burdened by war’s emotional toll the way humans are, and AI systems will likely fight differently as a result.

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A reader’s perspective on Four Battlegrounds 

My rating: 3/5

On the heels of several other books covering artificial intelligence (Kinds of Minds, Breaking Twitter, and History of AI) I found this one to be an exciting culmination, a fitting end-cap to a variety of diverse “takes.”

We are careening toward a world of AI systems that are powerful but insecure, unreliable, and dangerous.

What I enjoyed most were the philosophical “what-ifs” that the author presented. His work is well grounded in research and very well cited (NB: not a criticism of the author, but the author’s extensive citations were presented as hyperlinks instead of footnotes, which made the reading experience a bit disjointed and clunky.). This grounding in reality elevated the thought experiments beyond the merely philosophical to the possible, and even, probable.

The chapters specifically on AI warfare were among the most eye-opening for me. For example, the author discusses how, in simulations, AI fights differently than humans would. Taken to the extreme, one could expect that AI war machines would also battle differently. Similarly, could the AI tools that help humans decide “how” to war influence the course of history? Could we reach a point where war is AI vs. AI?

I definitely enjoy questions more than answers, but even pragmatic readers curious about AI’s potential will find a lot to like about this book as it details how AI is being used today and how it could be used in the short term by global superpowers.

Excerpts from Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence