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Race to Weaponise AI

Will China win the AI race?
Trade talks, between the US and China are stealing the headlines, as is the much-publicised Huawei 5G story which some western governments consider to be a security concern. But beyond all of this, is the less talked about but even more important race – the use of advanced AI systems to develop new weapon systems.

Jemma Nott, a political economy postgraduate student at the University of Sydney joins the programme.

The role of AI in different countries around the world is the first topic discussed: "I think the US was the first major world player to begin a heavy amount of research into this, and of course every other world player is playing a very quick catch-up game. The US has previously relied on proxies or paid mercenaries, and the advancement of unmanned vehicles and tanks is probably going to be one of the biggest changes in the way that conventional warfare is played out across the globe. So there is quite a lot of research being put into hyper-intelligent drones, recognition systems, that are faster and more effective than when done manually by human beings. Of course, with other countries like China and Russia, there is also a significant level of investment being put into fighter jets that are operated autonomously by nearby pilots, which can provide a level of protection for pilots in action. The same goes for unmanned tanks which have been developed and are currently being put into defence strategies…"

Jemma stresses that this weaponisation of AI technology is something that is happening right now. "It is happening in the here and now and it is slowly being trialled, and some technologies are clearly already trusted enough to be used by national governments in operation. But obviously there is so much further to go, and in terms of where it will go. We can paint a dystopian picture, but it is still a guessing game at this point."

Different countries seem to be leading in different areas, Jemma says. "There is a vast difference in size of economies and resources available….The US is able to import a lot of human capital from the best universities and research centres of the world into Silicon Valley, due to incentives in joining the US labour market. It is possible to say that they are leading in certain types of innovation, but where China is fast filling in the gap is in the ability to quickly instigate new projects, projects that demand massive updates to national infrastructure, such as the surveillance programs that we have heard a lot of in the mainstream media right now. But Russia, of course, has made it clear that it understands the necessity of rolling out these types of projects as well. I think that Russia is probably lagging behind China and the US right now. I think that anybody trying to bet against China in this race would lose."

China, Jemma says: "has the ability to collect data at quite fast speeds. As I mentioned before, they are undergoing vast surveillance programs. What is fundamentally necessary to quickly improve and adapt the learning processes of artificial intelligence which can later be applied to weapons and machinery is the ability to collect vast quantities of data. An example of this would be the face recognition systems being rolled out by the super-giant AI company Baidu. That's a program that would be very hard to carry out in the US. And not only is this extremely profitable because that data can be sold on to ecommerce companies, but it can also simply be used to make AI smarter. So they have programs like Baidu Eyes which are essentially focused on a level of surveillance, which is really unprecedented in history. It can be used for crime prevention and things similar to that on a surface level, but the real task is to provide a feedback of information to advance AI learning. This can then be applied to their defence programs."

Jemma feels that this AI race is one of the most important things that are happening now. "I think that the US's interest in this race with China is not just in the military industrial complex because there are other players in the US market who want a share in the Chinese economy too; as in Wall Street. I think that there are massive alarm bells being sounded right now, within Silicon Valley that their own political parties are not taking this race as seriously as they otherwise could be. I do think this is important, because, as President Putin said: "Whoever wins this arms race will rule the world." 

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