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Smart killer robots: China’s military future could rest on artificial intelligence

Last month, Google announced that it is opening an artificial intelligence research lab in Beijing. This sudden return to China seven years after the tech giant left the country looks like a clear acknowledgement that China will play a major role in the development of AI in the future, and Google does not want to miss out. The rapid development of AI in China might substantially affect not only Google and other tech companies, but China’s own citizens and even people in other parts of the world.

In July, China said it expects to become the world leader in AI by 2030 in an industry potentially worth $150 billion. The Chinese government is investing billions of dollars to promote the development of AI at home, while Chinese companies not only heavily invest in local AI development, but pour funds into numerous related startups in Silicon Valley.

China is no longer a country of cheap labor, now boasting some of world’s top universities and enough home-grown IT talent to develop its own technologies without seeking help from foreign experts. Also, unlike tech giants in the United States, Chinese companies are barely constrained by legal issues over data collection and users’ privacy. They can freely use the data of China’s 750 million internet users, match photos and personal IDs and then train facial recognition algorithms and other types of neural networks on large datasets.

The U.S. still has an advantage in terms of AI development, but China is catching up fast. Given the amount of resources available in China for the AI development, chances are Beijing will be able to fulfill its goal of becoming the industry leader by 2030.

“China is very likely to remain highly competitive in the AI space by 2030, and barring substantial geopolitical instability will be a global leader in AI and cyber warfare,” Dr. Cameran Ashraf, an assistant professor at Central European University who researches the geopolitics of internet censorship and cyberwar, told The Defense Post.

China has good reasons to heavily invest in AI. The country has seen unprecedented economic growth in the past decades. However, recently it has slowed down and the debate about the future of growth is ongoing. The development of the Chinese economy was fueled by low-cost labor, but if China wants to continue growing quickly, it now has to rely on something else, and technology might be its best bet.

A recent report by Accenture Technologies suggests that by 2035 AI might add as much as 1.6 percentage points to China’s GDP. The researchers at Accenture argue that to yield maximum economic benefits from AI China needs to use it as an additional factor of production, relying on AI for intelligent automation, labor and capital augmentation and innovation diffusion.

Analysts from other institutions also support the claim that AI will be helpful to economic growth, especially in China. PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that by 2030 global GDP could increase by $15.7 trillion, with almost half of these gains coming from China. PwC estimates that AI will account for a 26 percent GDP boost, or $7 trillion, in China in the next 13 years. However optimistic these economic projections sound, rapid development of AI in the PRC might also bring about significant challenges to freedom and security, both in China and beyond.

The U.S. is already alarmed about China potentially using AI for military applications. In February, Elsa B. Kania, an analyst with The Long Term Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute, testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has reportedly begun incorporating AI into unmanned weapon systems, including aircraft, drones and underwater vehicles.

“The Chinese defense industry has likewise made significant progress in its research and development of a range of cutting-edge unmanned systems, including those with supersonic, stealth, and swarming capabilities, but appears to face continued challenges in UAV engines, data links, and sensors,” she said.

According to Kania, the PLA continues to push towards “unmanned, intangible, silent warfare” that is increasingly “intelligent.”

Potential applications of AI in the military realm are not limited to new kinds of physical weapons.

“There is reason to believe that China could actively use AI for military purposes. From a strategic standpoint, it would be unwise for states to not at least investigate the use of AI,” Ashraf said.

“The applications of AI in the military realm could be enormous: from social media analysis of domestic or foreign sentiment, automated ‘attack’ or ‘defense’ in the cyber realm, facilitating more substantial military training, or being used in conjunction with autonomous weapons systems (‘killer robots’) to automate physical combat or even have drones recommend targets based on AI analysis.”

Ashraf at the same time noted that even if China becomes the global leader in AI, it would still “face logistical problems in projecting physical power, so it would have an advantage in one domain but need to make investments in others to leverage power.”

Chinese military advances and further economic expansion will inevitably lead to significant shifts in current geopolitical order, but their impact will depend on how well China’s main competitors – the U.S. and Russia – develop their own AI capabilities, and on other political changes both in the West and in China itself.

Furthermore, in order for China to gain a significant military advantage over its competitors, it is not enough for it just to develop AI. Beijing will also have to figure out the best applications of AI in the military realm to be successful.

“Even if China has the best AI in some area, the Chinese military still needs to figure out how to integrate it into their doctrine and processes, all within a military that has no experience fighting a modern high technology information-intensive war. No military technology is a silver bullet, and I think that is especially true of AI,” Jon R. Lindsay, Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, told The Defense Post.

Activists and tech leaders including SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have called on the United Nations to ban fully-automated weapons systems over concerns they will put civilians at heightened risk. In November, the Convention on Conventional Weapons Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems held under the auspices of the U.N. Office for Disarmament affairs agreed to continue formal deliberations on autonomous weapons systems next year.

China might lack experience in fighting modern wars, but Beijing has a lot of experience monitoring its citizens, and that is another concern over how the government will apply AI capabilities within China.

Currently the government not only does not restrict the uses of personal data by domestic tech giants such as Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba, but actively uses their resources to surveil Chinese citizens. Beijing has successfully used advanced facial recognition systems to analyze data from millions of cameras to track down law violators.

On the one hand, this might help police to catch criminals faster. But China is more rapidly than any other country moving towards becoming a surveillance state where no one can hide from the government. Besides offline surveillance, AI can also be used to censor online environments and identify people who spread “sensitive” information online.

Such censorship by AI-based technology could be replicated by other countries as it is further developed.

“AI surveillance could eventually build sophisticated profiles of individuals, identify patterns to ‘discover’ new social groups to be surveilled, create “on the fly” censorship which could learn from social media and censor words, phrases, pictures, apps, websites, music, or video rapidly and intelligently, making censorship almost invisible,” Ashraf said.

“Something could be censored automatically as it gains steam, and then relaxed after the storm has passed. There would be almost no trace that it had ever happened.”

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