Abishur Prakash discussed the potential outcomes of the 5G ban and its effect on Britain's role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). He is the world's leading authority on geopolitics and technology, and is a geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future (CIF), a strategy consulting firm base in Toronto. He has also authored four books, including Next Geopolitics: Volume One and Two, Geopolitics of Artificial Intelligence (Go.AI) and The Age of Killer Robots.
SPUTNIK: How will London's ban on Huawei 5G equipment affect Britain's place in building its own 5G networks, is it worth the cost and what is needed to make the switch a success in avoiding sanctions?
Abishur Prakash: It’s a huge move by London. For years, the UK has been trying to establish itself as the gateway into Europe for China but now, that foreign policy is forfeited.
Pushing out Huawei 5G equipment is going to be extremely difficult. British Telecom (BT) and Vodafone have warned there could be “network blackouts” if they have to replace Huawei equipment too fast, meaning people may lose cellphone signal.
And, who is the UK going to contract to build its 5G network? Many European 5G leaders are using Chinese equipment! Swedish telecom Ericsson sources parts from Panda International, a Chinese firm on the US Entity List for having “links" to the Chinese military. China is also threatening to stop exporting equipment to Nokia and Ericsson if EU nations ban Huawei.
Consider also that Huawei and ZTE account for almost 50 percent of global 5G telecommunications, so UK may have a tough time finding alternatives.
To successfully transition away from Huawei, and Chinese equipment, the UK will have to double down with US and Japan. London is already in talks with Japanese firms like NEC and NTT for alternative 5G equipment, but still faces a catch twenty-two.
If London doesn’t use Chinese equipment, it won’t be able to fully upgrade in the short term, meaning it won’t reap the rewards of 5G such as faster speeds and boost to commerce.
But, if London does upgrade its networks with Chinese equipment, it could threaten its national security and relationship with allies, including intelligence sharing. It’s a tightrope that the UK has to walk.
SPUTNIK: Has there ever been a similar moment in history where IT infrastructure was affected due to sanctions or executive orders from a state actor? Which countries were impacted? Why are such practices detrimental to the competitive development of emerging technologies?
Not on this scale. Since the end of World War II, the world has been governed by American technology. It’s been American inventions and innovations, from the Internet to smartphones to semiconductors, that have powered the entire world.
There has been no real alternative, and if nations didn’t want to use US equipment, they couldn’t advance or develop.
Now, for the first time, there is an alternative, China, and, it’s starting with 5G along with social media platforms like TikTok.
While there is one camp that views this kind of “division" over technology as detrimental, I take a different view. Competition and challenge always brings out the greatest creativity and genius, and while companies may struggle in terms of sourcing specific parts such as chips or adapting to new tech-based foreign policies, these limits will spur new ideas and approaches.
But for those who seek more cooperation, was there ever a time when the US and China were jointly cooperating on technology? Ask US firms and they will say they were pressured into sharing their technology with China. Ask Chinese firms, and they’ll say they have every right to build alternatives to US companies.
Adversaries never cooperate. They always compete, even when they say they are cooperating.
SPUTNIK: Speaking on 5G and the 4IR, do you believe that the UK will ever be able to compete with EU nations such as Germany and France, now that manufacturing capacity will be curbed due to the costly switch? Will the UK still be able to adopt automated manufacturing, machine-to-machine (M2M) learning and other emerging technologies as easily now that Huawei 5G is no longer an option in the country?
At its core, 5G is about powering societies and economies on a scale that hasn’t existed before. 5G is needed to operate millions of self-driving cars, thousands of automated factories, hyper-local healthcare systems and robotic militaries.
In other words, the UK needs this equipment in order to leapfrog into the future. Therefore, the real question is, does the UK have options beyond 5G?
For example, take “offline intelligence.” In China, a technology firm called Horizon Robotics has developed “artificial intelligence on a chip”, whereby appliances can communicate with each other, even without the Internet. And, some companies are starting to launch their own satellites to provide new connectivity, bypassing local telecommunications companies.
SPUTNIK: Five Eyes nations stated they were concerned of cybersecurity risks in adapting Huawei's 5G equipment, but is there tangible evidence that such threats are real? Is this an in principium argument aimed at strengthening the alliance, and couldn't potential threats be mitigated with end-user controls and algorithmic monitoring?
Just as US has issues with Chinese technology, the Chinese have their own concerns about Western technology. This is not about who is right or wrong, but the outlook that nations have in Next Geopolitics.
For Five Eyes, the entire saga with Huawei and TikTok has not only solidified the alliance, but could expand it. Already, Japan wants entry, and there is talk that India could also play a role.
It’s clear that the recent moves on Chinese technology, by the US, India and UK, have brought together an informal “coalition" of nations who have the same geopolitical alignment regarding Beijing.
I don’t believe there is a middle ground in terms of algorithmic monitoring or any other measure because the stakes are too high. The US views China as its biggest challenge since World War II, and China views the US as its biggest challenge in rising up and creating its own world order.
This means, even if Washington and Beijing bridge tensions today, the idea that AT&T could build 5G in Beijing or that Huawei and ZTE could build 5G in Washington is a pipe dream.
Instead, these nations are going to double-down on technology and become more aggressive. They’ll have a new attitude on the world stage: if you want to do business with us, you have to use our technology.
SPUTNIK: How does the UK compare to other leading countries in the 4IR? Philosophically speaking, the 4IR aims to transition humanity to a post-work world, namely as artificial general intelligence gains a stronger role in society and prices are driven down through abundant manufacturing techniques. What is your view on a major G7 nation potentially failing to achieve this by prioritising geopolitical agendas over the progress of industrial development?
Right now, nations like the UK are at a crossroads and must decide whether they want to continue recycling and reusing the old geopolitical play-book or if they are ready to design a new one for Next Geopolitics, because the fault lines and variables are fundamentally different now that technology is the driving force of geopolitics.
But, like everything within Next Geopolitics, this isn’t black and white.
First, 4IR is already an old concept. It had its spotlight a few years ago, but now it’s fizzled out as nations take a “niche” approach to technology, such as Malta specializing in crypto, Luxembourg specializing in space mining, and others.
Second, being a leader in Next Geopolitics, and specifically in AI and robotics, doesn’t necessarily mean having thousands of automated factories or the most advanced robotic arms in operation. It could instead mean becoming the global hub for data centers that house algorithms running smart factories.
Lastly, while nations moving the fastest will reap the most rewards, areas like AI and robotics will allow any nation to rise up at any time. This means, even if the UK is late to the game, or stumbles in the first quarter, the game isn’t over.
As the US and China clash, one of the least discussed areas is that the fight over emerging technologies is not just limited to those two countries. In India, Jio wants to build local 5G. In Japan, companies are investing to build local 5G production lines. In Middle East and parts of Europe, nations are taking radical steps with other technologies.
The point is, this isn’t a boxing match between two players. The geopolitics of technology, including 5G, is more of a global battlefield, made up of multiple nations, standing on multiple fronts and fighting different battles.
As technology advances, alliances could change, secret deals could be struck and territory could be gained or lost. For some nations, Next Geopolitics will make them and for others, it will break them.