Which Military Has the Edge in the A.I. Arms Race?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The race to be the new Big Brother is powered by robotics. Can the U.S. keep up with its rivals?
- It’s not just the U.S., China and Russia who are embedding artificial intelligence into their military systems.
- The U.K., Israel, Brazil, Australia, South Korea and Iran are also investing in military AI.
- China’s private-public co-operative model is allowing it to take the lead from the U.S. in some key technologies.
Think of artificial intelligence, and the mind often goes to industrial robots and benign surveillance systems. Increasingly, though, these are steppingstones for Big Brother to enhance capabilities in domestic security and international military warfare.
China has co-opted a controversial big data policing program into law enforcement, both for racial profiling of its Uighur minority population and for broader citizen surveillance through facial recognition. Wuhan has an entirely AI-staffed police station. But experts say China’s artificial intelligence research is also being adapted for unconventional military warfare in the country’s bid to dominate the field over the next decade.
AI could form an important pillar of the new cold war brewing between the U.S. and China over trade, technology and geopolitical influence. From the U.S. to Russia and American allies like Israel, military researchers are embedding AI into cybersecurity initiatives and robotic systems that provide remote surgical support. They’re using it for combat simulation and data processing.
By 2030, a third of the combat capacity of Russia, America’s archrival, is expected to be driven by artificial intelligence, say experts, including AI-guided missiles with the ability to change target midflight. Israel has adopted a networked sensor-to-shooter system to aid the Israel Defense Forces in remotely patrolling the many contentious regions under their control. Other countries, including the U.K., Brazil, Australia, South Korea and Iran, are also investing in research into AI-powered weapons, tanks and other armed platforms.
We owe it to the American people and our men and women in uniform to adopt A.I. principles that reflect our nation’s values of a free and open society.
Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center
All of this has prompted the U.S. to accelerate its own AI research to preserve its status as the world’s sole military superpower. Department of Defense researchers are building a robotic submarine system that will detect underwater mines and other anti-submarine enemy action without putting the lives of American soldiers at risk. Where the U.S. is trying to market itself as different is when it comes to the targets of its military AI capabilities.
“We owe it to the American people and our men and women in uniform to adopt AI principles that reflect our nation’s values of a free and open society,” Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, told journalists in February. “This runs in stark contrast to Russia and China, whose use of AI tech for military purposes raises serious concern about human rights, ethics and international norms.”
Not everyone is buying that. In April 2018, more than 3,000 Google employees urged CEO Sundar Pichai in an open letter to discontinue working on the Pentagon’s Project Maven. They argued that the tech giant “should not be in the business of war” because “we cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties.” Pichai and Google pulled out of the program.
Meanwhile, this May, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison received a prototype of a jet-powered drone from Boeing Australia to flank and protect its manned combat aircraft. Brazil and India have set up panels for their militaries to work with cutting-edge labs on developing artificial intelligence. Britain’s Ministry of Defense has launched its own AI lab, as has the South Korean army, which has also used a sentry robot in the Demilitarized Zone along the border with North Korea.
Fenced in by U.S. sanctions, the Iranian government is funding the country’s AI tech. An international conference on robotics in Tehran two years ago discussed, among other things, using drones. Researchers in the country have proposed a new Ministry of Artificial Intelligence. And last October, the Iranian military released images of miniature robots that can slide under enemy tanks.
The U.S. knows it can’t let up. The DOD spent $7.4 billion on AI, cloud computing and big data in 2017, and requested $927 million for AI alone in 2020.
That’s just a fraction, though, of the commercial spending by companies on research into autonomous systems development, says Mary Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University and one of America’s first female naval fighter pilots. “The future of AI in military systems is directly tied to the ability of engineers to design autonomous systems” that can demonstrate the ability to act and react on their own with the level of sophistication that humans bring through their knowledge and reasoning, she explains.
China is one step ahead of the U.S. there. While the DOD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has struggled to develop a drone that can transport troops, Cummings says, China is believed to have designed a commercial drone that can transport passengers. “The tech space is clearly leading the charge, and the military is playing catch-up,” says Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at Sydney’s New South Wales University.
For the U.S., it’s a race against time to commandeer influence in this new global arms race. Win or lose, it’s a high-stakes game to be the new Big Brother.