China may lag behind the US military on metrics like the number of aircraft carriers it has, but it may be able to seize a “leapfrog opportunity” and invest in newer, cheaper weapons that could make carriers obsolete. That’s one conclusion in a new report about China’s well-funded, ambitious goal of becoming a world leader in AI technology.
Similar to how some countries never developed extensive landline infrastructure and instead skipped directly to building mobile phone networks, China is capitalizing on the opportunity to develop AI-based technology, including autonomous submarines that could confront hulking US carriers. At the same time, the United States could end up spending “too much to maintain and upgrade mature systems,’” according to one Chinese scholar quoted in the report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
The United States, China, and Russia have all stressed the importance of AI-based military technologies and are making notable investments. China is investing tens of billions of dollars in AI development, according to the CNAS report, with the government viewing it as a key strategy to “protect national security.” Russian President Vladimir Putin famously said the leader in AI “will be the ruler of the world.” Meanwhile, the United State’s principle defense strategy document, published in 2018, stated that AI will allow the country to “fight and win the wars of the future.” In other words, the budding AI arms race is close to official policy in these countries.
Many Chinese government officials and scholars recognize the perils of this dynamic, according to the CNAS report. An influential government think tank argued, for instance, that the government should “’avoid artificial intelligence arms races among countries.’” But at the same time, China is selling advanced equipment, ever-more autonomous and reliant on AI, to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
China laid out its ambitious AI plans in 2017, when it pledged to enter the “first echelon internationally.” It’s already achieved that goal in terms of the number of AI patents, the number of AI research papers, and the amount of AI investment, according to the CNAS report. Commercially, China is leading the pack in areas like drones, where consumer drone maker DJI has 74 percent of the market. As is the case in the United States, private companies are creating AI-based technologies that have military applications. China, however, doesn’t seem to be having nearly as difficult a time developing partnerships with private companies as the United States government has had.
“China’s commercial market success has direct relevance to China’s national security, both because it reduces the ability of the United States government to put diplomatic and economic pressure on China and because it increases the technological capabilities available to China’s military and intelligence community,” the CNAS report states.
In contrast, the United States government has had difficulty matching the salaries available to AI talent in the private sector and faces a tech workforce, for instance at Google, that resists the idea of working with the military. Nonetheless the US military has invested heavily in AI programs like Project Maven which has already been used to analyze video footage from drones in combat zones. And of course, China’s path to AI dominance is not without obstacles. The CNAS report suggests that trade tensions with the United States may be contributing to a slump in China’s tech sector.