Power and governance in the age of AI

Power and governance in the age of AI

New America asked experts to reflect on artificial intelligence and the public good. Nazli Choucri, professor of political science and senior faculty at CIS, was one of the contributors. 

March 14, 2024 | New America | Gordon LaForge, Allison Stanger, Sarah Myers West, Bruce Schneier, Stephanie Forrest, and Nazli Choucri
Gordon LaForge, Allison Stanger, Sarah Myers West, Bruce Schneier, Stephanie Forrest, and Nazli Choucri
March 14, 2024
New America

AI and the Co-Evolution Dilemma

By Nazli Choucri, professor of political science at MIT and senior faculty at the Center for International Studies

Artificial intelligence is interconnected with the internet, the core of cyberspace. To understand how AI will shape international relations, and vice-versa, it helps to first understand the power of the co-evolution dilemma. Both cyberspace and international relations are complex systems, each constantly changing and evolving. But these two systems are not independent of one another; they are interlocked and mutually dependent. Communication, information, and data flows are as important to global politics and power as physical goods and services.

The two systems are not static, but they co-evolve over time and space, creating joint and often unexpected effects with new realities, uncertainties, and emergent complexities. The dynamics of co-evolution are shaped by:

  • Situationally shared information (reflected in the creation of global internet standards bodies, for instance);
  • Overlapping networks (think government–business cooperation in global cybersecurity);
  • Emergent path dependency (which refers to how decisions in one domain constrain and shape possibilities in the other); and
  • Self-organizing and self-generating properties (such as the geography of internet infrastructure).

The dilemma of co-evolution emerges because all parts of the two systems change and evolve at different rates. Specifically, cyberspace develops more quickly and “out-evolves” the instruments of the state-based international system, which is not designed to manage persistent and rapid rates of change. In the face of rapid digital technological development, states have pushed back by establishing cyber-focused rules and adapting existing law to emerging situations, among other measures.

None of this has been enough, however, and as a result, the very foundations of authority are challenged. In social science parlance, what keeps a system together is authority supported by the legitimacy of the state and its institutions. But there is no central authority in cyberspace, with the internet at its core, and none in the international system, with its constituent sovereign states.

In practice, private authority, primarily in the form of large technology companies, fills the vacuum. Because they are responding to gaps in capacity and functionality and performing operations that states cannot, these companies accrue an outsized amount of power, agency, and authority over the co-evolving systems of cyberspace and international relations. Thus, the core of the dilemma: Private, unaccountable authority is accorded a particular form of legitimacy, one that enables non-state actors to be powerful enough to establish rules and to pursue private interests—not the interests of the state or even of the market.

The advance of AI is likely to make this dilemma far more pronounced and consequential. AI innovations, applications, and permeations taking place in all parts of the world are close to making AI more akin to household appliances than to critical infrastructure. As open models proliferate, lone inventors, as well as organized entities, have near-unrestricted license to “innovate.” Existing efforts to address the dilemma, such as calling for a pause in AI development or regulation meant to constrain particular applications or operations, are far from adequate.

At the very minimum, there needs to be accountability and transparency. The companies and powerful actors at the core of the dilemma should be called upon to put forth, for public review and assessment, foundational protocols for accountability and transparency in the management of all future AI development and deployment. AI is now a global issue. It must be addressed as such.

Read analysis from the other experts here.