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Beijing dreams of electric sheep: Catching up in the technological arms race

Image credit: Alexander Mueller (Creative Commons: Flickr)

In recent years, the race for Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology supremacy has been well and truly underway. While the US tech industry giants such as Google have made progress in terms of AI complexity, it is likely that the biggest breakthroughs will occur in China.

The inevitable breakthroughs in AI technology have been labelled as the next revolution in warfare. China is well poised to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise in this emerging industry. This is due in large part to the cohesion between the state and private industry, and the ability to collective massive data sets that the Chinese Communist Party possesses.

Beijing has made it government policy to be the world’s dominant AI player by 2030. China issued the ‘New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’ in July 2017, outlining its intent to surpass US capabilities through becoming ‘the world's premier AI innovation center’.

China’s Development Plan was seen by some as a response to the Obama administration's own development plan, the 2016 Third Offset Strategy, which devoted more funding towards AI research and development. This Pentagon-led project has been well supported, but has endured funding cuts under the Trump administration.

The current US strategy provides a specific framework for AI military development and operational applications. The Obama administration delivered this in response to anxiety over Chinese and Russian activity. In a statement, the US Department of Defense Deputy Secretary Bob Work said ‘China and Russia now have theatre-wide networks that are approaching parity with us ... to strengthen conventional deterrence, we want to make sure that we can extend our advantage in that area’.

But Washington’s AI strategy has been fractured by the tense relationship between Silicon Valley tech giants and the Trump administration. This has meant that the Pentagon has struggled to collaborate with private firms. The lack of cooperation between corporate America and the military establishment will likely result in diminished operational cohesion — a space in which China holds a significant advantage. Thus, although the US holds the technological advantage for now, the gap is closing.

China's increased AI technology funding has been impressive. China’s development plan will allocate over RMB150 billion (USD22.15 billion to AI funding by 2020, and RMB400 billion (USD59.07 billion) by 2025. Globally, AI spending is projected to reach USD19.1 billion USD this year, a 54.2 % increase from 2017 spending.

Simply put, the Chinese national strategy is far more coherent. In China, private industry cooperates directly with the state. Through its social monitoring and information sharing policies, the Chinese state has also amassed incomparably large datasets, which are essential to developing AI technology.

Beijing has also invested much more capital in sustaining its developmental potential, and has restructured its AI production, training and development base. In April 2018, China's Ministry of Education released the 'Artificial Intelligence Innovation Plan for Institutions of Higher Learning’. In line with its Development Plan goals, by 2030, it is envisaged that China's universities will be transformed into the 'core forces for the construction of major global AI innovation centres'.

This plan also outlines a 'military-civil fusion' strategy regarding AI education. The aim is to ‘accurately seize upon military-civil fusion's deep development direction, development laws and development priorities’. In essence, Beijing intends to integrate its civil-military AI development and application processes through education and sustainable institutional practices.

Perhaps China’s largest advantage is that it does not have the same legal or ethical dilemmas that the US faces. This allows China's industry leaders like Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba to work hand in hand with the state in achieving AI development objectives.

Conversely, major US companies like Google, Deepmind and Facebook, who are still global leaders in the field, do not have such an accommodation with the Pentagon. Most private US firms are strongly against the use of AI technology in a military context. Notably, Google recently pledged to refuse any future military contracts, and delivered a document on ethical guidelines titled ‘Artificial Intelligence at Google: Our Principles’, outlining their policy for the development of AI, as well as broader guidelines emphasising privacy and human oversight.

China’s far more comprehensive and cohesive strategy is likely to eat away at Washington’s existing advantage. Although Beijing’s lack of ethical restrictions regarding the usage of AI in a military context should be a global concern, it also serves as an advantage for China. The Pentagon has been criticised for failing to create a specific ethical criteria in regard to weaponized AI. However, greater institutional transparency and resistance from the private sector has impeded the development of weaponised AI in the US.

Ultimately, even though most experts agree that a universal framework on the development and use of AI for military purposes is needed, the race for industry hegemony is currently the primary concern for all parties. It appears that China will soon have the upper hand.

Emmett Howard is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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