The rapid evolution of the technological landscape is re-shaping dynamics between governments and private actors. The governments that invested more heavily in technologies such as big data, 5G, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing have already reached strategic advantages on other countries.
The sovereignty of a state is contingent upon its ability to master the technological landscape, and here, data is the new power.
Emerging technologies can have a significant impact on both geopolitical and economic contexts. Increased investments in technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence will result in billions in profits for private companies and governments, with obvious repercussions on employment.
5G is expected to generate $13 trillion in global economic value and 22 million jobs by 2035, while the global market for artificial intelligence is estimated to reach $15 trillion by 2030. These figures are pushing governments to engage in a race for technological leadership. Governments are adopting every means available to achieve intellectual property related to cutting-edge technologies and advanced projects.
Figure 1 - The impact of 5G IHS Markit – The 5G Economy. How 5g will contribute to the global economy 2019
The United States, China, South Korea, and Israel are some of the countries that are making larger investments in these technologies. These investments are clearly part of a strategy aimed at becoming drivers in these technologies, imposing their standards, and taking advantage of the private companies of their own countries.
The progress reached in the above technologies is already widening the gap between states. Countries in Africa and in South America are already lagging behind and will suffer the hegemony of those states that already largely invested in new technologies. The risk is that these countries will have no opportunity to choose these technologies and won’t be able to manage the large quantities of data they generate.
Which are the main players of the technological landscape?
The technologies discussed in this article are provided by private “big tech” companies. Above all these organizations are investing in research in “disruptive” technologies that could affect the global market.
If we look at the world’s largest market capitalizations we can find that tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet and Facebook are monopolizing the landscape.
Figure 2 - Source Statista
In the past, geopolitics was governed by oil and natural gas and most of the organizations in the private sector held little influence over the global economy. Instead, in modern society, tech giants are geopolitical players and have become de facto global stakeholders.
In fact, these companies already have an impact on geopolitics: their strategies influence governments’ investments in technologies and drive innovation. Moreover, tech giants are at the forefront of AI research , so much so that their technological power would squash any governmental research institute. The following graph shows the top 20 institutions in Thundermark Capital's AI Research Rankings 2020, measuring the contributions to top-tier AI research.
Tech companies hold the new political power, their operations have a huge geopolitical influence, and, for this reason, many privacy advocates and government representatives are questioning their conduct.
“We must impose democratic limits on the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the internet giants,” said Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. “New technologies must never mean that others decide how we live our lives.”
In the last years, the US government did not push for regulatory control over the activities of US tech giants, but with the rise of Chinese tech firms, starting with the Trump administration, things have changed. The US government is now reviewing its position, fearing the market power of tech giants, especially Chinese ones.
Because data is the principal asset of a technological society, it is essential to regulate the way it is collected, stored, transferred, and used internationally. Data governance on a global scale is impacted by cultural changes among states, and governments are aware their sovereignty depends on their ability to control information. Unfortunately, the decisional and regulatory processes of the states are slower than technological evolution.
Overall, the shift of geopolitical influence into the private sector is triggering government responses. Some governments are intensifying their collaboration with private companies by involving tech giants in billionaire deals for the provision of strategic services. For instance,Microsoft and Amazon were involved in the supply of cloud services for the US Military. A different approach, led by China, consists in seizing direct control of tech giants through government ownership of a portion of company shares.
The aforementioned approaches affect global synergies and international relations, while government interference in private companies has led to their ban by many countries. The ban of Chinese-manufactured 5G equipment from US telco networks — and some allies — serves as an example.
What will happen in the future?
Tech giants’ power will continue to increase along with their influence on global politics and the economy. The forthcoming regulations proposed by governments will be influenced by private organizations, which will never accept any limitation imposed upon their business. We can also expect a new class of politics on the global stage that will comprise experts in emerging technologies as well as of tech giants representatives.