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A Politically Neutral Hub for AI Research

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This article was originally published by the ETH Zukunftsblog on 24 May 2019. 

The growing politicisation of AI harbours risks. Sophie-Charlotte Fischer and Andreas Wenger propose a hub for AI research in Switzerland committed to the responsible development of the new technologies.

The surge of progress in Artificial Intelligence (AI) over the last few years has been driven primarily by economic market forces and the manifold commercial applications. Large global technology companies, particularly in the US and China, lead the field in AI. Yet this concentration of AI resources in a few private corporations is increasingly undercutting the competitiveness of public research institutions and smaller companies. Such oligopolistic market dynamics threaten to exacerbate existing economic and social inequalities.

The Global AI Race

On the international level, a new technology race has started. State actors increasingly view AI as a strategic resource, as they expect far-reaching effects on the economy, society and the military. Accordingly they are stepping up endeavours to influence the innovation process and the proliferation of AI technologies. The latter dynamic generates an isolationist tendency that runs counter to transparency and openness in AI research and development.

From a technical perspective, too, future developments in the AI sector are associated with great uncertainty. While some experts expect a rapid and broad development of AI, others consider a gradual and uneven process more likely.  Moreover, modern machine learning systems still lack robustness in a number of ways and thus are vulnerable to causing accidents unforeseen by their human designers.

Great Opportunities – Great Risks

The interplay between technology, market and politics determines to what extent and by whom the opportunities associated with AI can be exploited and the risks mitigated. For businesses, the technical uncertainties surrounding AI technologies accentuate the goal conflict between rapid implementation and safety considerations.

The concentration of AI resources in a few large companies and the attendant dynamics of political competition between great powers exacerbates the risks associated with the use of as-yet immature AI technologies. It also creates challenges for societies and regions less advanced in AI. Economically, they run the danger of becoming overly dependent on global technological oligopolies; politically, they may become increasingly dependent on the political decisions of other actors.

Science Diplomacy for International AI Cooperation

The development of new technologies and their application should not be shaped by a few dominant economic and political actors, but must include voices from the economic, societal, and political spheres, and from every region of the world. Therefore, it is crucial to establish effective, forward-looking channels for international cooperation in order to ensure that the mid- and long-term development and use of AI is transparent and fair.

As one element of a global AI governance architecture, we propose the creation of a politically neutral, international and interdisciplinary hub for basic AI research that is dedicated to the responsible, inclusive and peaceful development and use of AI. Science coupled with diplomacy can help forge a sustainable mechanism for international cooperation in AI, and can open up its potential to as large a part of the world population as possible. Launching such an initiative would indicate that the development trajectory of AI is not predetermined, but can be shaped in an international framework.

An international hub for AI research would perform four core functions: First, it would provide an attractive working location for the highest-calibre AI professionals worldwide. Second, it would serve as a platform for researching, reflecting upon and managing the technical and societal risks associated with AI. Third, the initiative would contribute to developing norms and best practices in AI. Fourth, it would serve as a centre of learning and training for AI researchers. Beyond these core functions, researchers from various disciplines could also collaborate at the hub on the development of AI applications designed to address specific global problems.

A Role for Switzerland

For a number of reasons, Switzerland is particularly well-positioned to take a leading role in advancing the vision of an international AI research hub and to serve as host state in its implementation. Her political neutrality, stability, self-reliance, and experience in shaping multi-stakeholder processes, make Switzerland a credible host for a global AI research platform.

Already the country has a dynamic AI ecosystem comprising excellent technical universities, a lively start-up scene, and global corporate technology leaders. At the international level, Switzerland has the opportunity to promote itself as one of the world’s leading research and innovation locations, a key facilitator of international cooperation, and a bridge-builder at the interface of peace support policy and foreign technology relations.

This article is an abridged version of a recently published Policy Perspective from the Center for Security Studies (CSS).

About the Authors

Andreas Wenger is professor of International and Swiss Security Policy at ETH Zurich and Director of the Center for Security Studies (CSS).

Sophie-Charlotte Fischer is a PhD candidate at the Center for Security Studies (CSS).

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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