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China and US compete for AI dominance

04 April 2018 Tate Nurkin

This is an extract from an article from Jane’s Intelligence Review

Signs of a growing arms race between China and the US in the field of artificial intelligence underline the importance of this technology for the future of warfare. Tate Nurkin examines the implications of this competition for intelligence and security agencies.

Key Points

  • Artificial intelligence will shift the nature of defence, security, and intelligence competition between states, through its impact on the way intelligence analysts and decision-makers process and interpret data, and on the way militaries fight.
  • China has identified AI as a key technological priority, and the leadership’s heavy political and financial investment in this field is likely to produce results given the close interconnection between the government and the technology sector.
  • Intelligence analysts will have to incorporate AI into their workflows, but not at the expense of traditional tradecraft and alternative analysis techniques, with the latter particularly important for conceptualising the uncertainties around the impact of AI on interstate competition.

In May 2017, then US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work observed in a speech to the Department of Defense Applied Research Lab that the intersection of emerging technologies and capabilities was changing the nature of warfare.

Work was not the first observer to opine on the ways in which novel technologies are changing how conflicts will be fought. However, Work’s point was that the development of emerging technologies – particularly AI, robotics, and the development of interfaces to connect humans and machines – will change the “immutable” nature of warfare, rather than just how wars are fought. “The nature of war is all about a collision of will, fear, uncertainty, and chance,” Work said. “You have to ask yourself, how does fear play out in a world when a lot of the action is taking place between unmanned systems?”

The US is not the only country to understand the potentially revolutionary impact of AI and robotics. The result has been what analysts are increasingly referring to as an AI arms race. Intelligence experts and government officials quoted in an article on the future of intelligence analysis in the January 2018 issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review (Volume 30, Issue 1) used that exact term, as did a March 2018 Wall Street Journal article entitled ‘The New Arms Race in AI’.

This race is likely to be particularly intense between the United States and China (although others, including Russia, will also be involved). It is almost certain to have a profound effect on how geopolitical and military competition unfolds across the Indo-Pacific region during the 2020s as the two geostrategic rivals seek to become the first to occupy the commanding heights of cognitive warfare.

This is a high-stakes contest in which there are severe penalties for finishing second, given the potential for AI to confer dominance on those who develop the most agile and effective applications. Russian President Vladimir Putin noted on 2 September 2017, “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

This is an extract from an article that appeared in Jane’s Intelligence Review. Learn more.

Author note

This article incorporates content and analysis from a report authored by Jane’s on China’s Advanced Weapons Systems to be released by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) in early 2018. Portions are also derived from the author’s published written testimony to the USCC in support of a 15 February 2018 hearing, ‘Implication of China’s Military Modernization’. For more information on the hearing testimony, USCC reports, and the USCC mandate, please see www.uscc.gov.

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