Putin speaks at a meeting with students in Yaroslavl, Russia, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017.

Putin speaks at a meeting with students in Yaroslavl, Russia, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. Alexei Druzhinin, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russia’s Quest to Lead the World in AI Is Doomed

Innovation in the former Soviet Union is still in shackles.

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin famously stated that whoever becomes the leader in artificial intelligence “will become the ruler of the world.” Most experts on technology and security would agree with Putin about the importance of AI, which will ultimately reshape healthcare, transportation, industry, national security, and more. Nevertheless, Moscow’s recognition of AI’s importance will not produce enough breakthroughs to obtain the technological edge that it so deeply desires. Russia will ultimately fail in its quest to become a leader in AI because of its inability to foster a culture of innovation. 

Russia’s anxieties about competing in the information age are far from new. In 1983, then-Soviet Minister of Defense Nikolai Ogarkov lamented to the New York Times that in the United States, “small children — even before they begin school — play with computers….here we don’t even have computers in every office of the Ministry of Defense.” The Soviets were concerned about Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a land and space-based missile defense system, in part due to its artificial intelligence-enabled battle management system. In short, the Soviets feared that they would be unable to compete as the information revolution accelerated. 

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has shared many of Ogarkov’s concerns about modern technology for the entirety of his political career. In 2010, Medvedev established Skolkovo Technopark, Russia’s own version of Silicon Valley, outside Moscow to foster innovation and develop breakthroughs in emerging technologies. Within five years, Skolkovo had more than 30,000 people working on a modern campus that closely resembled Google headquarters. Residents of Skolkovo received investments from Microsoft, IBM, and Intel. Nevertheless, due to corruption and state interference, many of the top innovators in Skolkovo have fled Russia and are now working in the U.S. and Europe. 

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Endemic corruption, no protections for private property, and a pervasive state security apparatus make Russia a very difficult environment for innovation to flourish. Scientists want to collaborate with researchers around the world who are making headway in their respective fields. In Russia, the state has traditionally impeded the free flow of knowledge across its borders because Moscow views uncontrolled information as a political and national security threat. 

Yet Russian leaders seem not to have learned from the difficulties with Skolkovo. In February, Putin announced that the Russian government will publish an AI strategy by the middle of June 2019. Unsurprisingly, much of Moscow’s focus is on using AI to improve Russia’s military capabilities. Last year, the Russian Ministry of Defense organized a competition to foster breakthroughs in the field. Additionally, there is an Artificial Intelligence Association that is considering the broad impacts of AI on society. This month, it is a key sponsor of a conference aimed at developing technologies to expand the prowess of the Russian armed forces. Regardless the Russian government’s AI innovation efforts will ultimately not succeed for the same reasons that Skolkovo has failed. 

The Russian government will devote the preponderance of its AI resources to defense and national security. Thus, researchers are going to be heavily censored by the Russian security services. It will become increasingly difficult for Russian academics to have unfettered access to their Western colleagues due to security concerns. Additionally, any developments in the AI arena will be appropriated by the state, creating a disincentive for commercial investment. Thus, it is highly probable that much of Russia’s leading talent in fields relevant to AI research will leave, just like many of their Skolkovo colleagues, to work in countries that will enable them to achieve their goals. 

Russia’s political system and culture of corruption will prevent it from becoming a center of AI innovation. Ultimately, it will continue to fall farther behind the United States, China, and Western Europe in AI research and other advanced technologies. Just like in the 1980s, Russia is not equipped to effectively compete in a world that is so heavily shaped by the information revolution. 

Aaron Bateman is pursuing a PhD in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University. He also served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with assignments at the National Security Agency and the Pentagon. He has published on Russian foreign policy, technology, and diplomacy.