Seapower in the First and the Second Machine Ages: from self-propelled torpedoes to artificial intelligence



Andrea Gilli, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
Mauro Gilli, Center for Security Studies of ETH-Zurich

Date and Time

April 12, 2018 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room, Encina Hall, 2nd Floor, 616 Serra St, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: What are the consequences of the emergence of robotics, big data, and artificial intelligence for international politics? Are these new technologies going to promote instability and conflict, as many warn, or are they going to reinforce U.S. military primacy? In particular, will China be able to gain and eventually exploit the unfolding technological revolution - the so-called Second Machine age - or are such concerns exaggerated? The literature in political science and international relations theory has either largely neglected technology and technological innovation, or simply assumed that technology is a substitute for labor that reduces countries' constraints to go to war. Drawing from the scholarship in economics and management, in this article we look at technology in terms of a set complements and nodes-in-the-network. Thus, while technological innovation reduces the prices of some goods or tasks, it simultaneously makes their complementary assets more difficult to procure (through an increase in the demand). The resulting distributional effects, we argue, explain why actors will benefit unevenly from technological change. We test our theoretical insights by looking at seapower in the first and in the emerging second machine age: respectively, the time of the steam engine, steel hulls, quick-firing long-range guns and the telegraph; as well as the unfolding era of neural networks, fast processors and real-time communications. Our preliminary empirical results corroborate our framework, namely that the effects of technological change are much more complex than the literature acknowledges and highlights the challenges countries will have to face in the military realm during the second machine age.

Speaker biosAndrea Gilli is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Harvard University and a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation of Stanford University. Andrea has conducted research for several organizations, including the European Union Institute for Security Studies, RUSI in London and the Office of Net Assessment of the U.S. Department of Defense. He holds a Ph.D. in social and political science from the European University Institute, an MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a B.A. from the University of Turin.

Mauro Gilli is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies of ETH-Zurich (Switzerland). During the academic year 2015-16, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding of Dartmouth College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University, an MA from SAIS-Johns Hopkins and a B.A. from the University of Turin.