Over the past year, the revolutionary wave of Artificial Intelligence (AI) sweeping states and societies underscores how its rapid advancement and adoption has become a critical determinant of power and influence in the contemporary world. Consequently, technological cooperation and competition increasingly influence global geopolitics and state relations.

There have been unprecedented techno-political convergences between India and the US on enhancing AI cooperation.

This convergence of multifaceted interests has been likely propelled by the recommendation from the US National Security Commission on AI to form a US-India strategic tech alliance in October 2021. Although the formation of such an alliance was not explicitly announced, it can be assumed with good reason that the US Department of State and India’s Department of Science and Technology acted on this recommendation by jointly initiating the US-India Artificial Intelligence Initiative (USIAI) in March 2021.

On 20 November, US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti’s advocacy for deepening cooperation on AI underlined the continuing emphasis of the two states on bilateral tech diplomacy since the inception of the USIAI.

Advocates of strengthening the Indo-US strategic tech partnership, like Ambassador Garcetti, portray it as mutually beneficial. It is worth noting that their optimism is not unfounded, considering India’s thriving technology landscape, abundant data resources, and skilled workforce that offers a conducive environment to synergize with the US’s technological acumen in advancing AI cooperation. Capitalizing on each other’s strengths, both states have been exploring societal applications of AI in sectors like healthcare, education, and infrastructure under the auspices of the USIAI.

However, now the emphasis is on defense AI cooperation following the initiation of the Advanced Domains Defense Dialogue (AD3) in May 2023 and last year’s commitment to convene an inaugural Defense AI Dialogue. The decision to start defense AI cooperation is profoundly concerning but not surprising. For instance, the home page of the USIAI website states the objective to fortify the Indo-US strategic tech partnership by focusing on AI cooperation in critical areas that are priorities for both states. Given contemporary regional geopolitics and the contestation over tech supremacy, it is tough to dispute that strengthening defense cooperation is the top priority for Indo-US relations moving forward.

A director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre supported this view while highlighting the potential of Indo-US defense cooperation in AI and acknowledging India’s keen interest in integrating it into national security.

However, this is a stark divergence from the vocal stance of prominent global academics, activists, and AI researchers. These groups have advocated for a halt to developing autonomous weapons systems and are more inclined to scrutinize bilateral AI defense projects given the debate over ‘killer robots’. A case in point is how thousands of Google employees have vociferously protested against the Pentagon’s military applications of AI in the past.

However, China’s accelerated investment in military AI has been a national security concern for the Pentagon, specifically since the release of the Defense Department’s 2018 AI strategy. These concerns are reflected in recent US laws banning investments in China’s AI sector and the surge of US investments in India’s semiconductor and AI firms. A Machiavellian cause thus aligns both states against China, as evidenced by the US decision to limit China’s advances in AI, while lofty ambitions to “shape the future of AI” were envisaged in January 2023 with the inception of The US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET).

Therefore, regardless of the ethical concerns, the US sees Defense AI collaboration with India as a means to counterbalance China’s tech prowess and an opportunity to tap into an alternate hub of innovation and investment. The overarching geopolitical rationale shaping Indo-US defense AI cooperation is supported by works like Paul Scharre’s book “Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”, which offers a comprehensive account of how the US could gain the upper hand in the global technological race by collaborating with allies like India. The complex interplay of geopolitics and technology contributes to a bifurcation of the global technological landscape.

The potential repercussions of initiating Indo-US defense AI collaboration cannot be overlooked.

This is fundamentally at odds with a landmark resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 1 November 2023, which barred autonomous weapon systems and warned of their implications for international security. Moreover, Ambassador Garcetti himself cautioned about the possible catastrophic outcomes arising from AI even though the Indo-US defense AI collaboration could ironically bring about the same catastrophic consequences he had warned about, depending on the extent of AI’s integration in future weapon systems.

For now, there are regulatory divergences between India and the US, especially regarding data privacy and AI ethics. Therefore, bureaucracies in both states are occupied with navigating the opportunities and challenges. At the same time, the normative considerations of engaging in defense AI collaboration are side-lined in an era of great power technological competition. The fact is that AI, like any transformative technology before it, accompanies unprecedented opportunities for international development and unforeseen consequences for global security. Policymakers in Washington and New Delhi should thus strive to maximize the opportunities and mitigate the risks associated with AI and not the other way around.

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