Tech & Digitalisation

A New Democratic Purpose: Building Global Technological Alliances

Commentary6th March 2023

The world is going through a profound period of change. The impacts of the technological revolution will dwarf those of the Industrial Revolution that changed the world. The advent of software has demolished old economic models, while breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI), biotech and climate tech can reshape parts of our lives that were previously transformed by the innovation of earlier centuries. The countries at the forefront of today’s advances – and those that can drive tomorrow’s – will be the ones to define our future.

China and the United States are the technological superpowers locked in a new race to embrace critical strategic technologies such as synthetic biology, semiconductors and AI. This has significant implications for the rest of the world. As Europe begins to leverage its collective might in response, countries must find their niche and move at speed or risk slipping behind. We recently set out what this means in our landmark report, A New National Purpose, launched by Tony Blair and William Hague.

The US alone has already embarked on one of the most consequential policy drives in recent history, with the combined impact of the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in the defining industries of the next few decades. China, on the other hand, is raising its sights, with President Xi Jinping placing science and technology at the centre of China’s 20th Communist Party congress. By some estimates the country is leading the global field in 37 of the 44 technologies that are critical to the modern economy. 

The task for democratic nations is so urgent that it requires a once-in-a-generation shift in political thinking. Fundamental to this is the concept of a new 21st-century “strategic state” that would harness the benefits of the tech revolution, using data and technology to reform public services so that they work more effectively for people and at a lower cost. Such a state would also create the conditions to drive the next generation of scientific and technological breakthroughs and companies. 

Making this happen requires reorganising the centre of government and building foundational AI-era infrastructure, including sovereign general-purpose AI systems enabled by supercomputing capabilities, as well as reforms to the way our science and research institutions are funded and regulated to give more freedom and better incentives for innovation.

In A New National Purpose we set out this vision for the UK and offered a blueprint to the rest of the world. Any country looking to succeed in the modern era needs to be able to adopt and adapt to the technology changing the world around them. Nations such as South Korea, Singapore, Israel and Estonia have all to some degree made this an ambition. But barring China and the US, no nation has made it central to their growth.

This mission also cannot be restricted to domestic reform. For like-minded countries with shared values, technological cooperation needs to become a defining feature of foreign policy today. In recent years, debates around friend-shoring and issues-based alliances have entered the discourse, while countries have rethought their supply chains and industrial policy to drive national programmes. Some of the trade-offs of this policy push have already become apparent in the unit economics, with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s CFO stating that the cost of building a facility in the US can be four to five times greater than building one in Taiwan.

This means that new strategic alliances to scale international innovation efforts will be critical. These have developed bit by bit in areas such as AI research, chips and climate tech, including nuclear fusion, but there needs to be a more deliberate attempt by liberal democracies to accelerate innovation that will be essential to their future economic strength and collective technological power. This is a debate about systems as much as it is about states. 

This debate has emerged as technology becomes increasingly central to geopolitics. Concerns about the fragmentation of our secure, interoperable internet architecture have been growing for years, while the increasing pace of AI innovation demonstrates that this technology is likely to be the most consequential breakthrough for the future of the world. This has already raised worries about a “race to the bottom”, in which the speed of AI’s progress would outpace our ability to control it safely, but the reality is that we are in a race to the top.

Liberal democracies need to be aware that this is a game they must play to win. Technology and power have always been intertwined, and those that master the former will be the ones to determine the future. Being at the frontier of AI development opens up the possibilities of discovering new domains of knowledge and accelerating science and innovation in ways that were previously unimaginable.

This requires a more muscular approach to technology, akin to the one shown by the US. For other liberal democracies, the power of technology and its role in shaping our values and systems cannot be ignored.  

In AI, progress is currently driven by private-sector actors and governments have little expertise or knowledge in this area. Without significant efforts to build better links between industry and government there is a risk that the policy debate ends up entirely on the wrong premise. The starting point must be better information sharing between leading innovators, as well as between government and academia.

But to further their ambitions in building multilateral science diplomacy in AI, liberal democracies should draw inspiration from initiatives in other areas such as the International Space Station, CERN and ITER. This would crowd in leading expertise and help to embed democratic leadership and values into the frontier of this field.

If science and technology should become a new national purpose for liberal democracies looking to drive progress today, such leadership in AI can be central to a new democratic purpose. And as emerging technology presents opportunities to transform health, energy and the material world, it opens up new possibilities for grand projects that transcend individual countries. 


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