The images that emerged from Cuba in October 1962 shocked the Kennedy administration. Photos from a U-2 spy plane revealed Soviet missile sites under feverish construction just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The installations posed a direct threat to the U.S. mainland, drastically altering the balance of power that had kept an uneasy peace. In a televised address on October 22, President Kennedy revealed the Soviet deception and announced a blockade to prevent further missiles from reaching Cuba. The world anxiously watched the crisis build over the next tension-filled week.
Behind the scenes, critical signals were being misread on both sides. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev believed the United States knew of Moscow’s inferior strategic position relative to its superpower rival. In secret discussions with Kennedy, Khrushchev voiced dismay that his attempt to redress the imbalance was perceived as offensive rather than a deterrent. Kennedy, blindsided by photographs he never expected to see, questioned why the Soviets would take such a risk over an island nation of questionable strategic value. Faulty assumptions about intent magnified distrust and instability at the highest levels.
The perils of miscommunication that defined the Cuban Missile Crisis feel disturbingly resonant today. Nations compete for advantage in trade, technology, and security matters beyond the horizon of public visibility. Artificial intelligence powers more decisions than ever in governance, finance, transportation, health, and a growing array of sectors. Yet intentions behind rapid AI progress often need to be clarified even between ostensible partners, let alone competitors. So, how can nations credibly signal intentions around artificial intelligence while managing risks?
The technology and national security policy worlds require prompt solutions - tailor-made connections enabling credible communication of intentions around artificial intelligence between governments, companies, researchers, and public stakeholders. We will explore critical insights from a crucial recent analysis titled “Decoding Intentions: Artificial Intelligence and Costly Signals " to demystify the AI landscape.” by Andrew Imbrie, Owen Daniels, and Helen Toner. Ms. Toner has recently come to the limelight in the recent OpenAI saga as she is one of the OpenAI Board of Directors who fired Sam Altman, the co-founder and reinstated CEO of OpenAI.
The core idea is that verbal statements or physical actions that impose political, economic, or reputational costs for the signaling nation or group can reveal helpful information about underlying capabilities, interests, incentives, and timelines between rivals. Their essential value and credibility lie in the potential price the sender would pay in various forms if their commitments or threats ultimately went unfulfilled. Such intentionally “costly signals” were critical, if also inevitably imperfect, tools that facilitated vital communication between American and Soviet leaders during the Cold War. This signaling model remains highly relevant in strategically navigating cooperation and competition dynamics surrounding 21st-century technological transformation, including artificial intelligence. The report identifies and defines four mechanisms for imposing costs that allow nations or companies employing them to signal information credibly:
Tying hands rely on public pledges before domestic or international audiences, be they voluntary commitments around privacy or binding legal restrictions mandating transparency. Suppose guarantees made openly to constituents or partners are met down the line. In that case, political leaders can avoid losing future elections, or firms may contend with angry users abandoning their platforms and services. Both scenarios exemplify the political and economic costs of reneging on promises.
Sunk costs center on significant one-time investments or resource allocations that cannot be fully recovered once expended. Governments steering funds toward research on AI safety techniques or companies dedicating large budgets for testing dangerous model behaviors signal long-standing directional buy-in.
Installment costs entail incremental future payments or concessions instead of upfront costs. For instance, governments could agree to allow outside monitors regular and sustained access to continually verify properties of algorithmic systems already deployed and check that they still operate safely and as legally intended.
Reducible costs differ by being paid mainly at the outset but with the potential to be partially offset over an extended period. Firms may invest heavily in producing tools that increase algorithmic model interpretability and transparency for users, allowing them to regain trust - and market share - via a demonstrated commitment to responsible innovation.
In assessing applications of these signaling logics, the analysis spotlights three illuminating case studies: military AI intentions between major rivals, messaging strains around U.S. promotion of “democratic AI,” and private sector attempts to convey restraint regarding impactful language model releases. Among critical implications, we learn that credibly communicating values or intentions has grown more challenging for several reasons. Signals have become “noisier” overall amid increasingly dispersed loci of innovation across borders and non-governmental actors. Public stands meant to communicate commitments internally may inadvertently introduce tensions with partners who neither share the priorities expressed nor perceive them as applicable. However, calibrated signaling remains a necessary, if frequently messy, practice essential for stability. If policymakers expect to promote norms effectively around pressing technology issues like ubiquitous AI systems, they cannot simply rely upon the concealment of development activities or capabilities between competitors.
Rather than a constraint, complexity creates chances for tailoring solutions. Political and industry leaders must actively work to send appropriate signals through trusted diplomatic, military-to-military, scientific, or corporate channels to reach their intended audiences. Even flawed messaging that clarifies assumptions reassures observers, or binds hands carries value. It may aid comprehension, avoid misunderstandings that spark crises or embed precedents encouraging responsible innovation mandates more widely. To this end, cooperative multilateral initiatives laying ground rules around priorities like safety, transparency, and oversight constitute potent signals promoting favorable norms. They would help democratize AI access and stewardship for the public good rather than solely for competitive advantage.
When American and Soviet leaders secretly negotiated an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides recognized the urgent necessity of installing direct communication links and concrete verification measures, allowing them to signal rapidly during future tensions. Policymakers today should draw wisdom from this model and begin building diverse pathways for credible signaling right now before destabilizing accidents occur, not during crisis aftermaths. Reading accurate intent at scale will remain an art more than deterministic science for the foreseeable future.