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Three Possible 2025 Worlds that Should Inform Policy Today

Published
Jun 12, 2020 02:09AM UTC

By Catherine Aiken and Michael Page

What will the technology-security landscape look like in 2025? That’s the question Foretell aims to address.

When imagining what the terrain of emerging technology and security might resemble in five years, two high-level issues stand out: U.S.-China tensions and the fortunes of the artificial intelligence industry. We outline here three 2025 worlds that could result from trends in these issue areas. For each, we imagine how trends might interact and what else we would see in a world with these properties. We then work backward to identify the warning signs—or indicators—we should expect to see in the next three to 15 months if indeed we're heading toward one of these worlds.

World Forecasts    
World I: Domestic & Securitized U.S.-China tensions: High Fortunes of AI industry: Low
World II: Virtually Integrated U.S.-China tensions: Low Fortunes of AI industry: High
World III: Tense Economic-Security Balance U.S.-China tensions: High Fortunes of AI industry: High

We omit the world in which U.S.-China tensions and the fortunes of the AI industry subside. The most likely cause for a diminished AI industry without a general economic downturn or increase in international tensions is an “AI winter.” Under these circumstances, AI would be a less-central feature of the technology-security landscape. A forthcoming post will explore possible indicators of an AI winter.

World I: Domestic & Securitized

The global economy deteriorated through 2021 and has not recovered. Tensions between the United States and China have continued to escalate, leading to conflicts in the South China Sea and a nearly complete economic decoupling. International tensions more broadly led to a reduction in cross-border talent flows and a move away from global supply chains in strategic industries, such as semiconductor manufacturing. The U.S. tech sector is now dominated by large companies with the resources to survive the economic downturn. Private-sector funding for more-speculative AI projects, including startups and basic research, has dried up as U.S. defense funding has increased. AI research has become less open and collaborative, in part due to publication restriction in defense grants. Public attitudes have shifted toward security in the perennial security-privacy debate.

Indicators

  • Increase in U.S.-China tensions
  • Decrease in private-sector AI R&D investment
  • Increase in defense AI R&D funding
  • Less open research
  • Less migration of skilled labor across national borders
  • Less-international supply chains

World II: Virtually Integrated

The economy rebounded after a rough 2020, and tensions between the United States and China gave way to increasingly powerful economic interests in free trade and stability. To weather the pandemic, tech companies worldwide began hiring people for remote roles. Even as cross-border talent flows resumed their pre-pandemic trajectory, tech companies continued to employ people remotely, expanding their access to talent and creating truly global workforces. Public interest in automation-related technologies—such as healthcare screening, driverless cars, and robotics in manufacturing—increased rapidly after the pandemic forced widespread familiarity with these technologies. The increased demand for automation-related technologies created a bonanza for the tech sector, generating a wave of new private-sector investments.

Indicators

  • Decrease in U.S.-China tensions
  • Increase in private-sector AI R&D investment
  • Possible move toward permanent remote-employment options
  • Increase in migration of skilled labor across national borders
  • Increasingly international supply chains
  • Increase in public interest in automation technologies

World III: Tense Economic-Security Balance

Tensions between the United States and China have continued to escalate, leading to conflicts in the South China Sea and rising defense budgets in both countries. During the same period, the tech industry flourished. Public interest in automation-related technologies—such as healthcare screening, driverless cars, and robotics in manufacturing—increased rapidly after the pandemic forced widespread familiarity with these technologies. The increased demand for automation-related technologies created a bonanza for the tech sector, generating a wave of new private-sector investments. Balancing economic and security interests became the defining political issue in the United States. It manifested in trade and immigration policy, where concerns over research security, the security of supply chains, and technology transfer conflicted with industry’s hunger for foreign talent and free trade. It also appeared in heightened tensions between the U.S. defense and tech sectors, as the latter strengthened its monopoly on dual-use technologies such as AI and became increasingly bold in resisting security-based restrictions on hiring and trade. The tradeoff between security and privacy became deeply partisan, reshaping party politics in the United States.

Indicators

  • Increase in U.S.-China tensions
  • Increase in private-sector AI R&D investment
  • Increase in defense AI R&D funding
  • Open research becomes an increasingly contentious topic
  • Restrictions on skilled immigration becomes an increasingly contentious topic
  • Supply chains remain international but are a contentious topic
  • Increase in public interest in automation technologies
  • Security-privacy debate is among the most polarized social issues
  • Increase in defense-industry tensions

Disagree with our description of worlds or the selected indicators? Propose your own here. For more about Foretell, visit CSETForetell.com (you need to be signed out to view the homepage) or read the introduction blog post.