China gaining on US in artificial intelligence warfare

Consumer electronics boom fuels business and govt investments

WASHINGTON • Mr Robert O. Work, the veteran defence official retained as deputy secretary by US President Donald Trump, calls them his "AI dudes". The breezy moniker belies their serious task: The dudes have been a kitchen cabinet of sorts, and have advised Mr Work as he has sought to reshape warfare by bringing artificial intelligence (AI) to the battlefield.

Last spring, he asked, "Okay, you guys are the smartest guys in AI, right?"

"No," the dudes told him, "the smartest guys are at Facebook and Google," Mr Work recalled in an interview.

Now, increasingly, they are also in China.

The United States no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology, which is widely seen as the key factor in the next generation of warfare.

The Pentagon's plan to bring AI to the military is taking shape as Chinese researchers assert themselves in the nascent technology field. And that shift is reflected in surprising commercial advances in artificial intelligence among Chinese companies.

Well into the 1960s, the US held a military advantage based on technological leadership in nuclear weapons. In the 1970s, that perceived lead shifted to smart weapons, based on brand-new Silicon Valley technologies like computer chips.

Now, the nation's leaders plan on retaining that military advantage with a significant commitment to artificial intelligence and robotic weapons. But the global technology balance of power is shifting.

In the late 1980s, the emergence of the inexpensive and universally available microchip upended the Pentagon's ability to control technological progress.

Now, rather than trickling down from military and advanced corporate laboratories, today's new technologies increasingly come from consumer electronics firms.

As consumer electronics manufacturing has moved to Asia, both Chinese companies and the nation's government laboratories are making major investments in artificial intelligence.

The advance of the Chinese was underscored last month when Dr Qi Lu, a veteran Microsoft artificial intelligence specialist, left the company to become chief operating officer at Baidu, where he will oversee the Chinese company's ambitious plan to become a global leader in AI.

And last year, Tencent, developer of the mobile app WeChat, a Facebook competitor, created an artificial intelligence research laboratory and began investing in US-based AI companies.

Rapid Chinese progress has touched off a debate in the US between military strategists and technologists over whether the Chinese are merely imitating advances or are engaged in independent innovation.

"The Chinese leadership is increasingly thinking about how to ensure they are competitive in the next wave of technologies," said Dr Adam Segal, a specialist in emerging technologies and national security at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Whether or not the Chinese will quickly catch up with the US in artificial intelligence and robotics technologies is a matter of intense discussion in the US.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'China gaining on US in artificial intelligence warfare'. Print Edition | Subscribe