Think tanks in the age of artificial intelligence
By J. Carchidi
The purpose of the think tank is to serve as a "catalyst of ideas", "bridging the gap between the worlds of ideas and actions" and to create a source of intellectual capital for government officials. Think tanks generate ideas, organize policy debates, and link private research to public policy. But as noble as it sounds, foreign policy think tanks have come under fire in recent years due to a rise in anti-expert sentiment and dubious funding sources.
This isn't the first time think tanks have gone through a period of change and upheaval. After the September 11 attacks, the think tank community began to take public outreach seriously. The 2008 financial crisis rocked them again, this time forcing think tanks to seek new sources of individual, corporate, and even foreign government funding, becoming "smaller and more specialized" in the process. Today, American think tanks are facing questions about how to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century, especially with the emergence of political risk consulting firms such as the Eurasia Group and other commercial firms such as the McKinsey Global Institute.
The complexity of the current tasks of think tanks is not yet realized. The Fourth Industrial Revolution — a convergence of technological advances in a number of fields including artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and applications of quantum science — promises to define the geopolitical landscape of the twenty-first century. These advances call into question not only the "how" of ordinary life, but also "who" people become as a result, affecting all levels of society.
The fourth industrial revolution will affect the foundations of think tanks. Think tanks must recognize that this problem cannot be solved by simply collecting key ideas about new technologies and plugging them into political debates. Think tank funding concerns are justified, but they pale in comparison to the magnitude of the new technological era. Today, think tanks tend to coalesce around familiar and intuitive analytical challenges and policy ideas. The frustration associated with this inertia leads to the feeling that this problem cannot be adequately addressed simply by making think tank funding sources more transparent.
The fourth industrial revolution poses a challenge to foreign policy and national security. Not only are technologies such as AI or applications of quantum science much more difficult to fully understand than many think tank reports suggest, but their rapid convergence with geopolitical issues and the existential nature of nature present a major challenge. Rankings such as the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index report, which gives top marks to the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, are becoming increasingly popular given the fundamental nature of the issues described.
How can think tanks match the moment? Progress starts with the right questions.
Technology: Do analysts truly understand the nature and contours of the technologies they are strategically evaluating? Do they bring into their analysis assumptions that have not been challenged? To what extent do analysts depend on the "fashion" for certain queries?
Education: Are prestigious institutions such as Georgetown University or Johns Hopkins University producing good analysts because of their academic and academic potential, or are they attractive because of their opportunities for political and professional integration? For all the merits of these and related institutions, are their future analysts sufficiently educated in a field of interdisciplinary research suitable for the twenty-first century?
Professionalism: Are interns and entry-level analysts expected to be introduced to the critical work of the twenty-first century, or are they oriented toward familiarization with the professional rituals of the political beau monde? To what extent is the relationship between analysts and policy makers disproportionately more important than the need for a new understanding of new technologies?
These questions will become more relevant as the fourth industrial revolution develops.