Russia and China may push military use of AI beyond western policies, Latest Views News - The New Paper

Russia and China may push military use of AI beyond western policies

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Western nations may already be playing catch-up to Russia, China in military use of artificial intelligence

On Oct 31, a batch of Chinese teenagers reported to the Beijing Institute of Technology, one of the country's premier military research establishments.

Chinese authorities hope the teens, selected from more than 5,000 applicants, will design a new generation of artificial intelligence weapons systems that could range from microscopic robots to computer worms, submarines, drones and tanks.

The program is a potent reminder of what could be the defining arms race of the century, as greater computing power and self-learning programs create new avenues for war and statecraft.

It is an area in which technology may now be outstripping strategic, ethical and policy thinking - but also where the battle for raw human talent may be just as important as getting the computer hardware, software and programming right.

Consultancy PwC estimates that by 2030 AI products and systems will contribute up to US$15.7 trillion (S$21.3 trillion) to the global economy, with China and the US likely the two leading nations.

But it is the potential military consequences that have governments most worried and fearful of falling behind - and nervous that untested technology could bring new dangers.

In the US, Pentagon chiefs have asked the Defense Innovation Board - a collection of senior Silicon Valley figures who provide the US military with tech advice - to come up with a set of ethical principles for the use of AI in war.

Last month, France and Canada said they were setting up an international panel to discuss broadly similar questions.

So far, Western states have stuck to the belief that decisions of life and death in conflict should always be made by humans, with computers and algorithms simply supporting those decisions.

Other nations - particularly Russia and China - are flirting with a different path.

Russia - which last year announced it was doubling AI investment - said this month it would publish a new AI national strategy "roadmap" by mid-2019.

Russian officials say they see AI as a key to dominating cyberspace and information operations, with suspected Russian online "troll farms" thought to already be using automated social media feeds to push disinformation.

Beijing is seen as even further ahead in developing AI, to the extent some experts believe it may already be beating the US.

Mastery in AI comes down to having sufficient computer power, enough data to learn from, and the human talent to make those systems work.

As the world's most powerful autocratic states, Russia and China have that capability and intent, both to use AI to maintain government dominance at home and beat enemies beyond.

The US and its allies are still researching and building their own autonomous weapons.

When it comes to drones fighting drones, Western policymakers are generally happy to let unmanned systems make their own decisions.

But when it comes to killing, Defense Department policy requires that a human must remain "in the loop".

That may become ever harder to manage, however - particularly if an enemy's automated systems are making such judgments at much faster than human speed.

The writer is a Reuters global affairs columnist.