Could China dominate the AI arms race?

Harry Lye 20 January 2020 (Last Updated June 26th, 2020 07:50)

Beijing is rapidly gaining an edge in the development of military artificial intelligence (AI) technology by leveraging its control over domestic research facilities. Harry Lye finds out what the country’s progress means for rivals such as the US, and why winning the AI arms race matters.

Could China dominate the AI arms race?
Image: Shutterstock.

As the world reckons with the fact that warfare is moving to a hybrid domain, where space and cyberspace become increasingly important, the race to apply artificial intelligence to military technology is in full swing. Whoever achieves AI proliferation first will be leagues ahead of the competition, adversary or ally.

At a session of the Politburo in 2018, China’s premier Xi Jingping said China must “ensure that our country marches in the front ranks where it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and core technologies.”

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper referenced this statement in his speech at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence Public Conference in November 2019, adding: “For instance, improvements in AI enable more capable and cost-effective autonomous vehicles. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is moving aggressively to deploy them across many warfighting domains. While the US faces a mighty task in transitioning the world’s most advanced military to new AI-enabled systems, China believes it can leapfrog our current technology and go straight to the next generation.”

Eper added: “Advances in AI have the potential to change the character of warfare for generations to come. Whichever nation harnesses AI first will have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for many, many years.”

Emphasising the US’s sense of urgency in AI development, he said: “We have to get there first.”

China AI Arms Race – Beijing’s top priority

With AI set to be a critical component of future warfighting, China is throwing all its might into winning the race, having identified AI as a key area for modernisation. A valuable tool in this push is the country’s ability to draft Chinese industry and academia into supporting its government-led efforts, Esper explained.

AI development plays into Jinping’s long-held ambitions for China, as the country has already stepped out of the shadows to become an economic superpower, and now hopes to replicate this in the cyber domain.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) notes in its Asia Pacific Regional Security Assessment: “As China pursues a strategy for development that concentrates on advancing innovation, the contestation of leadership in next-generation information technologies – particularly artificial intelligence (AI) – is also a core priority.”

Beijing’s own national defence white paper makes plain this push for cyber superiority, saying: “Driven by the new round of technological and industrial revolution, the application of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum information, big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things is gathering pace in the military field. International military competition is undergoing historic changes.”

This push, IISS believes, will have “critical implications for the future of security and stability of the Asia-Pacific and beyond”.

In response to China’s trajectory and a need to focus its own AI research, the US established the Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre (JAIC) to streamline the development and adoption of AI. Washington also issued guidance across the Department of Defence for staff to think about AI integration everywhere from the back office to the frontlines.

Could China leapfrog US capability in the virtual domain?

The need to win the race to deploy AI across the military is not lost on the private sector, either. Paolo Palumbo, director of F-Secure’s Artificial Intelligence Centre of Excellence, told us: “I’d say it is very important not only to gain an early advantage but also in terms of starting the immense integration work as soon as possible. Having AI in the control room will be the first step, but then we will see integration closer to the battlefield, and being able to reach that phase quickly could make all the difference.”

Róbert Vass, founder and president of the Globsec think tank, echoed Esper’s warning of China “leapfrogging” the US in capability when he spoke to us ahead of the NATO Summit in December last year. Vass explained that while the US has enjoyed the dominance in conventional capabilities for quite some time, China is approaching a point where it could jump into the lead, a play that would render conventional forces near obsolete.

“We need to make sure that NATO is not preparing for a conflict of yesterday but we are preparing for the conflict of tomorrow, especially when China is heavily investing in artificial intelligence,” he said. “They will never be able to come to the level of the United States when it comes to a traditional army and defence, but they can do a leapfrog because, with new technologies, all of our equipment can become obsolete.”

Vass added that the push for AI was part of a wider sea change in defence and security. “We are moving [away] from a traditional domain to cybersecurity and disinformation,” he said. “And even I would say ‘hyper war’, which is a combination of traditional means with cyber [and] disinformation, and the scale and the levels of domains that this is impacting will be just mind-blowing.”

Europe also occupies a strategically important position in the AI arms race. Vass explained that even if the US beats China to its deployment, it could spell risks for cooperation with the continent as European countries suddenly find their equipment is no longer compatible with that of their ally across the Atlantic.

One challenge faced by most nations in the development of AI is that much of the technology required already exists, but the difficulty lies in integrating it with defence systems. In an interview discussing AI development in the US military last year, the US Air Force’s service acquisition executive Dr Will Roper told us: “If you look across this technology space, I think the core components of what is needed already exist – this is as much of, if not more than, an integration problem as a technological one.”

It appears that Chinese industry has already put at least some of these pieces together. As Esper pointed out during his speech at the conference in November, “Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling drones advertised as capable of full autonomy, including the ability to conduct lethal targeted strikes”.

Chinese UAV manufacturer Ziyan says its Blowfish A-2 system is capable of completing autonomous precision strikes. Image: Ziyan UAV.

China AI Arms Race – Redefining military power

With these capabilities already in Beijing’s hands, proliferation on a large scale could shift the balance of power not only in the South China Sea but on a global scale. After all, it is cheaper to produce low-cost attritables en masse than it is to build an aircraft carrier, destroyer or fighter jet. A military force equipped with a large fleet of AI enabled drones, for instance, could deploy at a pace simply unseen in modern times, and at a cost far lower than current norms.

AI development has emerged as the new AI arms race, but this time with a much more advanced toolkit. The stakes in this race are higher than ever, but also often misunderstood. After all, the world is still used to seeing aircraft carriers and fleets of tanks, rather than unmanned systems, as markers of military power. For the US to maintain the dominance it has enjoyed for decades as the world transitions to AI enabled forces, as Esper put it, it has to get there first.