China racing for AI military edge over the US: Report

US think-tank paper issues warning even as Alphabet chairman delivers similar message

WASHINGTON • A research arm of the United States intelligence community just wrapped up a competition to see who could develop the best facial recognition technology. The challenge: identify as many passengers as possible walking on an aircraft boarding ramp.

Chinese start-up Yitu Tech walked away with the US$25,000 (S$34,000) prize this month, the highest of three cash awards.

The competition was one of many examples cited in a report by a US-based think-tank about how China's military might leverage its country's rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) to modernise its armed forces and, potentially, seek advantages against the US.

"China is no longer in a position of technological inferiority relative to the United States but rather has become a true peer (competitor) that may have the capability to overtake the United States in AI," said the report, written by analyst Elsa Kania at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) which was to be released today. Future US-China competition in AI, she wrote, "could alter future economic and military balances of power".

Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who heads a Pentagon advisory board, delivered a similar warning about China's potential at a recent gathering in Washington. He noted China's national plan for the future of AI, announced in July, calls for catching up to the US in the coming years and becoming the world's primary AI innovation centre.

"I'm assuming that our lead will continue over the next five years, and that China will catch up extremely quickly. So, in five years, we'll kind of be at the same level, possibly," Mr Schmidt told the conference, hosted by CNAS.

BONA FIDE RIVAL

China is no longer in a position of technological inferiority relative to the United States but rather has become a true peer (competitor) that may have the capability to overtake the United States in AI.

ANALYST ELSA KANIA, from think-tank Centre for a New American Security, on China's potential in developing AI.

An unreleased Pentagon document, viewed by Reuters, warned this year that Chinese firms were skirting US oversight and gaining access to sensitive US AI technology with potential military applications by buying stakes in US firms.

In response, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the US Senate and House of Representatives this month introduced Bills to toughen US foreign investment rules.

The CNAS report noted the Chinese acquisitions and said Beijing faces hurdles in forging a domestic AI industry to rival the United States, including recruiting top talent.

Mr Schmidt, however, said: "If you have any kind of... concern that, somehow their system and educational system are not going to produce the kind of people that I'm talking about, you're wrong."

China's People's Liberation Army is investing in a range of AI-related projects and PLA research institutes are partnering with the Chinese defence industry, the report said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'China racing for AI military edge over the US: Report'. Print Edition | Subscribe