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Prof. Staab examines the political economy of AI

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How do AI technologies affect politics, economy and science as well as the German economic structure? These and other questions are explored in the new research project "Die Politische Ökonomie der Künstlichen Intelligenz – von der Fiktion zur soziotechnischen Realität" by ECDF Professor Philipp Staab. The three-year research project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) with 438,000 euros.

"Whoever becomes the leader in [AI] will become the ruler of the world". This much-cited technology promise by Russian President Putin in September 2017 exemplifies the importance attached to artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. How are the states in Europe reacting to this development and what do you hope to achieve?
Staab: There is currently a consensus here on three points. Firstly, key players in politics and business seem to agree that AI is one of, if not the central growth area of the future. Second, it is assumed that a leading position in this field will also be the basis for democratic self-determination and geopolitical power. Thirdly, Germany and Europe are considered to have lost out in international competition. Regardless of whether these premises are actually true, they have triggered considerable activism in politics, economics and, to some extent, in academic science. Around the topic of AI, therefore, a new, much more political capitalism may be adjusting itself in Europe.


What does this mean for countries like Germany, but also for the European Union as a whole?
Staab: Numerous countries have recently set up their own AI industry strategies and economic development programs and are investing billions of euros in the expansion of national AI innovation systems. What effects these initiatives will have is still relatively open at present. It is conceivable that a new AI-centered industrial policy will increase the relative autonomy of the European economic area - for example, because the development of a separate AI industry can only be achieved through import and investment controls. In a sense, this would then be Europe's exit from globalization. The example shows: The new political economy of artificial intelligence could have consequences that we cannot yet overlook today.


What is the goal of your research in this context?
Staab: First of all, I would like to find out whether this increased interaction between the state and the economy, the political economy of artificial intelligence, heralds a transformation of economic institutional structures and state capacities for action. We want to investigate in detail the socio-economic restructuring processes in the course of the spread of AI technologies for the German-European case. This will be followed by numerous questions: Who actually benefits from the political economy of AI in the end? Do national production models change in this context? Do the new measures and alliances benefit European democracies because they make innovations democratically manageable, or are we more likely to see a privatization of digital infrastructures?


Are you investigating a particular aspect of this?
Staab: Our analytical focus is both on state technology policy, which is actively intervening in the emerging market for "AI made in Germany", and on competing coalitions of economic actors, which in turn are trying to influence state intervention. Overall, we want to analyze the interactions between politics, economy, and science initiated by AI technologies and the possible consequences for the German economic structure by means of a theoretical integration of approaches from sociology of technology, innovation theory, and political economy.