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Great power competition and transformative technologies report

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This is the introduction to our investigation into great power competition and transformative technologies

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Many interventions to reduce global catastrophic risks (GCR) are cause-specific: fund AI safety research, fund pandemic-proof PPE, study the effects of specific future weapon systems, and so on. This report attempts to step back and look at a root driver of catastrophic risk: technology competition between great power states. Such competition drives governments to race for military superiority, become paranoid about their rivals' intentions, and build secretive bureaucracies. Each of these in turn may raise existential risk.

Some analysts have claimed that “most of the risk we face [i.e., humanity faces] comes from scenarios where there is a hot or cold war between great powers” leading to global catastrophes involving emerging technologies. This report investigates this claim by examining how strategic competition between great powers over transformative technologies affects various GCRs. We focus specifically on the worst possible outcomes of such competition — global catastrophes and existential threats — and seek to provide a framework for understanding these risks. We also assess the importance, neglectedness, and tractability of these issues and suggest what, if anything, philanthropists could do to mitigate them.

In this report, we argue that:

  1. Strategic competition has historically accelerated and even caused the development and deployment of transformative technologies.
  2. Such competition may affect catastrophic risks via multiple pathways. We investigate seven specific effects, grouped into three categories: raising the risk of war, raising the risk of accidents, and causing dangerous technologies to proliferate.
  3. There is a lot of uncertainty about the magnitude and, in some cases, the sign of these effects, though in expectation they seem quite important.
  4. This cause appears to receive little targeted philanthropic investment.
  5. There are some plausible options for philanthropic intervention, such as funding research to improve the culture of safety in government bureaucracies.
  6. But tractability remains the biggest concern — states have strong incentives to compete, and actors within states have incentives to encourage this competition.

Throughout the report, we cover:

What is the problem? We define key concepts, provide an overview of technology competition over transformative technologies, and introduce a framework for thinking about the risks of this competition via our three main pathways.

Its importance: We argue that modern strategic competition will influence the development of multiple transformative technologies, each of which could influence humanity’s future trajectory. We then examine each of the risk pathways outlined above, and consider whether ongoing competition is likely to increase or decrease risk. For most of the pathways, more intense strategic competition seems likely to raise catastrophic risk.

Neglectedness: We provide a rough attempt to understand the neglectedness of this problem. This is a challenging question, given that national competitiveness is a major focus for many philanthropists, think tanks, and government offices. We argue, though, that its intersection with extreme risks receives relatively little attention.

Tractability: We briefly touch on the problem of tractability. We argue that while affecting geopolitical outcomes is clearly challenging, progress on specific issues seems possible.

Interventions: Following from the tractability discussion, we briefly sketch possible interventions in our model, including non-proliferation measures, improvements in threat assessment, policy advocacy, and more.

This report is part of an evolving conversation on existential risks and great power conflict rather than a definitive treatment of the subject. Broadly we hope to strengthen the claim that competition between the world’s most well-resourced and powerful states is likely one of the biggest drivers of existential risk. We also hope to emphasize that some opportunities for philanthropists or individuals to mitigate the risks of this competition exist, and that, because this root driver of risk is leveraged, these possibilities warrant further exploration.

Continue reading in the full report

About the report

This report has been co-published with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

CIGI is an independent, non-partisan think tank whose peer-reviewed research and trusted analysis influence policy makers to innovate. Our global network of multidisciplinary researchers and strategic partnerships provide policy solutions for the digital era with one goal: to improve people’s lives everywhere. Headquartered in Waterloo, Canada, CIGI has received support from the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario and founder Jim Balsillie.

Notes

  1. For a list of GCR mitigation interventions, see GCR Policy, “Policy Ideas,” https://www.gcrpolicy.com/ideas.

  2. Richard Danzig, “Technology Roulette: Managing Loss of Control as Many Militaries Pursue Technological Superiority” (CNAS, 2018), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/technology-roulette.

  3. William MacAskill, What We Owe the Future (New York: Basic Books, 2022), 274.


About the authors

Portrait

Christian Ruhl

Senior Researcher & Global Catastrophic Risks Fund Manager

Christian Ruhl is an Applied Researcher based in Philadelphia. Before joining Founders Pledge in November 2021, Christian was the Global Order Program Manager at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania's global affairs think tank, where he managed the research theme on “The Future of the Global Order: Power, Technology, and Governance.” Before that, Christian studied on a Dr. Herchel Smith Fellowship at the University of Cambridge for two master’s degrees, one in History and Philosophy of Science and one in International Relations and Politics, with dissertations on early modern submarines and Cold War nuclear strategy. Christian received his BA from Williams College in 2017.

Portrait

Stephen Clare

Former Researcher

Stephen is a former Researcher at Founders Pledge. Previously, he was a Program Analyst for the United Nations Development Programme in Rwanda. He has also worked on climate change projects with the UN in Panama and the Youth Climate Lab in Canada. Stephen has an M.Sc. from McGill University and a B.Arts.Sci. from McMaster University.