For democracies, ‘tech integrity’ must be on par with territorial integrity – The Hill

At the beginning of an era of breathtaking technological advancements, Western democracies find themselves at a crossroads. The masters of this new realm are no longer solely nation-states, but also profit-driven corporations and, more concerning, regimes that disregard international norms. Those regimes are energetically driving the development of game-changing areas like quantum computing, artificial intelligence and space tech. 

Outflanked and outpaced, Western governments are not just playing catch-up — they are in a race against time and tech, with the interests of citizens hanging in the balance.

The stakes are high. The immense potential of quantum technology in both computational power and encryption could have profound national security impacts. And more immediately, the unchecked proliferation of AI is already posing societal concerns. 

As we approach the 2024 elections in the United Kingdom and the U.S., the role of readily available, powerful AI tools in influencing public sentiment and election outcomes should worry us all. Adversaries are already eager to deploy them in ways that compromise democratic principles and we don’t have much time to work out how to handle the impacts on processes born of an analog era. 

The Atlantic Council’s recent report on the tech race with China places the challenge in the context of wider geopolitical competition. But as well as taking on China, we also need to work on our own institutional, doctrinal and political snares.

In an age of tech, our definition of what underpins a nation needs an upgrade. It’s time to redescribe national sovereignty for the digital age to include “tech integrity” — competitiveness, the responsible development and use of technology, protection of digital rights and safeguarding of our essential tech infrastructures. This should stand alongside territorial integrity as a key pillar of the modern nation-state. Governments, traditionally stewards of the physical and financial well-being of the nation, must now also fully accept the responsibility of shaping the technological foundations that underpin our societies. This is not just good governance, it’s an essential aspect of modern statehood. 

But democratic nations face a tougher challenge than non-democracies; we feel the imperative to act and shape in the public interest, but also need to develop strategies that preserve innovation, free markets and economic vitality. Fresh ideas and political courage are needed to reshape our outlook. And while intense focus on regulation is right, it is also only part of a bigger tapestry of change and innovation needed at the government level.

As a starting point, we should look at new and effective ways to deploy taxpayers’ money in their own interests, for example by pursuing more meaningful government investment in strategic technology sectors. 

The U.S. government has unlocked the power of export credit to improve U.S. (and allied) competitiveness against China in some areas. And an innovative proposal by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute — establishing sovereign wealth funds dedicated to technology development — offers an intriguing pathway. These funds could be partnerships or single-nation ventures, preserving the autonomy and dynamism of private entities while ensuring that responsible democratic governments retain a stake in critical areas. Public-private partnerships, bound by shared values and clear objectives, could also offer potential. By leveraging collective expertise and resources, we could shape technology development to uphold democratic principles, human rights, equality and the well-being of our citizens.

We know that international cooperation is vital to navigate the complex tech landscape. This must, of course, also involve engaging with multilateral institutions that include those with differing goals and values as well as optimizing existing international partnership structures. But we also need new ways to support like-minded democracies to align more efficiently and to nurture a less fragmented power block that can take on the global power struggle. 

Imagine a democratic technology forum, for example — an independent platform to convene nations, academia, industry and civil society. A forum of this nature, for example, as an evolution from the U.K.-U.S.-initiated Global Summit on AI later this year, could foster a dynamic dialogue on technological development and regulation, responding nimbly to the rapid pace of change.

We will need to think about adapting the machinery of government to seize the opportunities and manage the risks of technology. For example, the U.K. recently brought functions together under a Cabinet post dedicated to Science, Innovation and Technology. Another concept to explore might be a body (for example a National Technology Commission) to act at arm’s length from the government to assess a nation’s needs and make recommendations on priority projects and investments, as well as explore best practices to incentivize and support responsible innovation. This could challenge us to look beyond short-term electoral cycles and focus on a nation’s nonpartisan strategic interests in technology. And it’s not enough to talk a good game on technology skills; political will is essential to weave this as a golden thread through the whole of society, including our legislators and administrators.

Our ability to influence technology’s trajectory certainly hinges on pragmatic regulation but this cannot be achieved without an informed, engaged and proactive legislative body. And, if we’re honest, our political and administrative class needs help to develop the requisite knowledge. We need to find more creative ways to expose decision-makers to cutting-edge technologies and to give them direct interaction with technology experts and developers. Partnering with universities and research institutions for technology workshops, innovation think-tank sessions, tech mentors and CTOs for legislature might all be worth exploring.

The balance is still in our favor, but we can’t assume that tech will bend to our values, even with indigenous development. And we can’t afford to stick to old policies and practices or rely on regulatory regimes that will never deliver a silver bullet. 

Although the window for Western governments to act more energetically is rapidly narrowing, we can still reassert pragmatic state influence if we are creative, curious and courageous in how we take on the challenges of securing a democratically-led and citizen-focused technological future.

Beth Sizeland is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and former U.K. deputy national security advisor.

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