For many Russian students, the academic year started last Friday with tips on planetary domination from President Vladimir Putin.
“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind,” he said, via live video beamed to 16,000 selected schools. “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
Putin’s advice is the latest sign of an intensifying race among Russia, China, and the US to accumulate military power based on artificial intelligence. All three countries have proclaimed intelligent machines as vital to the future of their national security. Technologies such as software that can sift intelligence material or autonomous drones and ground vehicles are seen as ways to magnify the power of human soldiers.
“The US, Russia, and China are all in agreement that artificial intelligence will be the key technology underpinning national power in the future,” says Gregory C. Allen, a fellow at nonpartisan think tank the Center for a New American Security. He co-authored a recent report commissioned by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that concluded artificial intelligence could shake up armed conflict as significantly as nuclear weapons did.
In July, China’s State Council released a detailed strategy designed to make the country “the front-runner and global innovation center in AI” by 2030. It includes pledges to invest in R&D that will “through AI, elevate national defense strength and assure and protect national security.”
The US, widely recognized as home to the most advanced and vibrant AI development, doesn’t have a prescriptive roadmap like China’s. But for several years the Pentagon has been developing a strategy known as the “Third Offset,” intended to give the US, through weapons powered by smart software, the same sort of advantage over potential adversaries that it once held in nuclear bombs and precision-guided weapons. In April, the Department of Defense established the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team to improve use of AI technologies such as machine vision across the Pentagon.
Russia lags China and the US in sophistication and use of automation and AI, but is expanding its own investments through a military modernization program begun in 2008. The government’s Military Industrial Committee has set a target of making 30 percent of military equipment robotic by 2025. “Russia is behind the curve, they are playing catch up,” says Samuel Bendett, a research analyst who studies the country’s military at the Center for Naval Analyses.
The AI race among the world’s three largest military powers differs from earlier competitions like those to deploy nuclear weapons or stealth technology because much artificial-intelligence technology can be used for both commercial and military applications.
Algorithms good at searching holiday photos can be repurposed to scour spy satellite imagery, for example, while the control software needed for an autonomous minivan is much like that required for a driverless tank. Many recent advances in developing and deploying artificial intelligence emerged from research from companies such as Google.
China’s AI strategy attempts to directly link commercial and defense developments in AI. For example, a national lab dedicated to making China more competitive in machine learning that opened in February is operated by Baidu, the country’s leading search engine. Another partner in the project is Beihang University, a leading center in military drones blocked from exporting certain items by the US Department of Commerce due to national-security concerns.
The US government is less able to simply order cooperation from the tech sector. Defense Secretary James Mattis admitted on a recent West Coast trip that took in the offices of Amazon and Google that his department needs to do a better job of tapping into commercial AI advances. The Pentagon plans to boost spending on its DIUx project, created by the Obama administration to help smaller tech companies partner with the military.
Russia’s smaller tech industry, compared with the US and China, puts it at a disadvantage in the AI arms race. But it retains a strong academic tradition in science and technology. And advanced technology isn’t everything—it also matters what you do with what you’ve got.
Bendett of the Center for Naval Analyses says Russia has demonstrated in recent conflicts in Syria and Ukraine that it can do much even without the best technology. Russian drones are much cheaper, and have smaller ranges, than those of the US, but have been extremely effective, he says.
Allen suggests that Russia may be willing to use machine learning and AI more aggressively than its rivals in intelligence and propaganda campaigns. Automation could enhance the power of hacking and social-media campaigns like those deployed in the 2016 US election, he says.
Speaking last Friday, Putin suggested that Russian gains in AI could make the world safer—apparently a nod to the arguably stabilizing effect of mutual nuclear deterrence. “It would be strongly undesirable if someone wins a monopolist position,” he said. The AI arms race may bring new technologies to the world’s largest militaries, but many dynamics of international power could be the same.