Asia Defense

The Trouble With China’s Edge in the AI Arms Race

Recent Features

Asia Defense

The Trouble With China’s Edge in the AI Arms Race

Beijing’s rising capabilities, while not surprising, should raise concerns for the region.  

The Trouble With China’s Edge in the AI Arms Race

A soldier in an usher uniform stands watch as Chinese President Xi Jinping, bottom, delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of the 19th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Xi on Wednesday urged a reinvigorated Communist Party to take on a more forceful role in society and economic development to better address “grim” challenges facing the country as he opened a twice-a-decade national congress.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

Artificial Intelligence or AI, simply described as the machine intelligence, has come to apply itself in several different sectors across countries in recent years, including healthcare, finance, education and security. But it has also increasingly become inserted into wider geopolitical conversations about the capabilities of major powers, including the United States and China.

Within that aspect of the ongoing conversation, in terms of market share within the industry, the leaders in the field include the United States, with around 40 percent of the global market by some accounts, with countries like China, Israel, Germany, Canada and Russia fast catching up.

But market share is just one indicator of capabilities in this realm. Arguably the more important criteria to understand the lead in the domain is possibly the data that one is able to gather.  On that count, it is estimated that China is possibly well ahead of the United States, perhaps aided by the fact that privacy laws in many countries, especially democracies, can dampen data access, thus hampering the prospects of AI, as noted by Microsoft President Brad Smith recently.

Reports suggest that China is probably ahead of the United States in terms of the amount of personal data collected, owing to many factors including the fact “it is a larger country” and the opportunities for collecting information in a country like China are “colossal.”

Chinese government wants to overtake the United States and be the global leader in the field by 2030. China has been making massive investments to create a huge pool of AI experts – in one indicator, it was reported that during the period 2011-2015, China had published more than 41,000 papers on AI, almost double the number of that of the United States. China is also ahead of the United States in patent applications for AI, with Chinese tech giants including Alibaba and Baidu making massive investments in AI.

The regional competition within China to set up AI hubs is also picking up pace. Tianjin, a coastal province in northern China, for instance, revealed $16 billion in funding for AI in the province. There is a clear economic logic to this too, with China attempting to use the AI as a platform to make the switch from being the world’s factory of cheap goods to a technology pioneer. A Cabinet note in China last year stated that by 2030, it will leap ahead with a global lead on AI theory, technology, and application.

However, there is little doubt that China’s leap in AI will extend far beyond civilian sectors and into the military as well. China intends to apply AI in important security sectors such as in the warfighting domain with special emphasis on naval warfare. China has established many AI institutes, but the most eye-catching one from a security perspective is a new research center established by the PLA Academy of Military Science. China’s National Defense University too has a new center for AI sciences, in addition to Tsinghua University’s “high-end” laboratory for military intelligence.

Both the United States and Russia are making efforts to catch up with China in terms of the number of institutions and centers focused on AI. Both countries will reportedly open their own centers for AI in the near future, although there are significant differences in which the three countries approach AI. For instance, Russian efforts are driven closely by the Kremlin, whereas China seeks to combine the civilian and military utilities of AI in a big way. The United States, at least for the time being, is looking at AI for assistance in areas such as logistics and open-source data analysis.

Clearly, there is a big surge in AI research in China, and it is easy to come to some hasty conclusions about how that might play out. According to Jeffrey Ding, a researcher at the University of Oxford and author of a study on China’s AI strategy, China’s capabilities as on date are “only about half those of the US.”  He argues that the United States has an edge in AI when it comes to hardware design, algorithmic research, and overall commercial linkages. China’s edge is possibly in terms of the data they are about to churn through a mix of Chinese “private” companies and government agencies. Some groups estimate that China “will possess about 30 per cent of the world’s data” in about a decade.

For many countries around the world, China’s lead in AI itself is not much of a concern. But how that aids Beijing’s military plans in the future should cause some worry. China’s plans to develop large autonomous robotic submarines, to give just one example, create anxieties. These are believed to “large, smart and relatively low-cost,” unmanned in nature and can traverse the international strategic maritime spaces by 2020s.

The traditional advantage held by the western naval powers such as the United States, and Asian maritime powers such as Japan and India, could possibly be eroded by the new Chinese venture. These submarines could be entrusted with underwater operations including mine placement, reconnaissance, and anti-carrier kamikaze ops aimed at the United States and its allies. Zhuhai in Guangdong province boasts of having the world’s largest testing facility for surface drone boats.

While China does not plan to do away with human operators in submarines totally, these AI-assisted underwater boats will have no humans on board and they will have the self-sufficient capacity to head out, complete their missions, and head back to the base without any command support.

It is worth noting that this could also heighten regional security competition more generally. China’s new venture is unlikely to go ahead without any competition, and this could in fact drive a new competition on the naval front as well. In fact, the United States has plans to develop its own Extra Large Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (XLUUVs), for instance, and Boeing and Lockheed Martin are already on the job.

China is also pushing AI in tank warfare by reportedly converting its old Type 59 Soviet tanks into unmanned vehicles fitted with AI. Reports indicate that back in 2014, China had set up its first dedicated research center for unmanned ground vehicles. While the tanks’ main gun was not visible in the recent China Central Television (CCTV) footage, Indian analysts familiar with tank warfare note that it is only a matter of time.

China’s advances in the military domain using AI are nothing short of remarkable. Clearly, such AI-assisted systems, if they are successfully deployed, give China a huge edge. But this will also likely spur a new technological arms race in the region, giving defense planners one more thing to worry about.