Henry Kissinger did not mince his words. As one of the most erudite commentators of global power rivalry, he was truly jolted to see the computer game, Go, a prototype of the more mesmerising AlphaGo game, capable of making strategic decisions far faster than human beings, and predicting the winner more accurately. For a self-confessed “historian and philosopher”, this rendezvous with artificial intelligence (AI) was upending, to say the least. As one of the foremost believers and practitioners of “political realism”, in which military power serves as the “be all” and “end all” actions and ambitions, Kissinger had to finally step outside his own box when he asked: “What will become of human consciousness if its own explanatory power is surpassed by AI,” indeed if we actually are “at the edge of a new phase of human history?”
Few others have mapped the human predicament more carefully than the former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Before the computer, the one cutting-edge technological innovation he identifies that reconfigured human society was the 15th-century printing press: it helped the Age of Religion be supplanted by the Age of Reason, with science displacing faith as the pivotal instrument. Yet his most poignant argument is simply that whereas the most pathfinding philosophical treatises could be disseminated through this new technology, with the AI tool, it is technology seeking philosophy, hoping any dissemination would be part of “the process of ultimate learning.”
Kissinger's philosophical trajectory has been inverted. Ethics, humanistic traditions, and norms have never played any part in constructing “realist” arguments, or associating with the “realist” school of thought. Bringing them into his own litany does not necessarily mean he is being “reborn”, that too at the fag-end of his illustrious life: it may, indeed, be a higher “realist” threshold, since the essence is to grapple with reality, a reality written today with technological software far different than the William Caxton 15th-century prototype he referenced (he invented the printing press in 1476).
His threefold claims should worry us too: the possibilities of unintended AI outcomes; intended AI outcomes changing human thinking and values; and the likelihood of AI outcomes lacking rationale and explication. By virtue of its “unprecedented memorisation and computation,” the AI capacity to win gets instantly exposed, but without the human capacity to think, no contraption will be able to manage such key nuances of the day as gender/racial/religious sensitivities or even the much-needed environmental friendliness so much in demand for our own sustenance in a way military capabilities were pitched by “realists” before, including by Kissinger himself. At the margin, values get altered, sometimes fundamentally. Without the Internet, for example, it might have taken a lot longer for Saudi women to win driving rights (or strictly, be given that right, given the modernisation priority of Mohammad bin Salman, the country's Crown Prince). Pushing the point, AI recommendations may conflict with our steady-state intentions, forcing us to make changes, thereby announcing a new personality.
Missing in Kissinger's appraisal is any power rivalry application or analysis. This is striking since the many more great-power claimants today than throughout a large chunk of the 20th century urgently demand scribal intervention. Although he charted a significant portion of the bipolar post-World War II rivalry, his heart, mind, and soul were always in the foundational format he observed in Klemens von Metternich's Congress of Vienna from 1815 and the 19th-century Concert of Europe: a multipolar system. It was only to be expected of him to bring China into the power-rivalry fold after 1971, even elevating the European Community to that level (irrespective of his favourite quip about that entity's credentials to be a leader: “Who do I call when I get there?” he often quipped to the legion of reporters constantly following him). He might have Angela Merkel, Germany's first woman chancellor, but more importantly, emerging as the acknowledged global leader, challenging a flailing superpower, the United States, home of her former compatriot, Kissinger. Today's multipolar system evolved without AI tools, and will most likely play itself out without AI dependence, although AI inputs cannot but accelerate positions and configurations every now and then.
Kissinger stands alone among “realists” with ample AI knowledge to stir the airwaves, but unless he has irreversibly disowned “realism”, he owes his own flock, now but more so in the future, the intelligible (which does not always mean correct) guidance.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).