China Leaps into Artificial Intelligence
Vol 11 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2018
The rapid strides China has taken in developing its own indigenous Artificial Intelligence capabilities
Saturday, January 27, 2018
The MIT Technology Review announced five big predictions for artificial intelligence (AI) for 2017 and one among these is about the AI boom in China. The country has identified AI and machine learning as priority task for a wide range of applications, from ‘the anodyne to the dystopian’, including transforming the economy from manufacturing cheap goods to developing high technology equipment and systems for space programme, quantum computing, and underwater engineering. What we are witnessing in China is rapid advances in AI with dual-use applications being studied and developed in national laboratories, university, research institutions, innovation and incubation centers, private companies and entrepreneurs. According to Liu Lihua, Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology, China has thus far applied for 15,745 AI patents and ranks second worldwide.
The 13th Five-Year Plan (2016- 2020) calls for innovations in AI which has been characterized as “China Brain Plan”. An “Artificial Intelligence 2.0 Plan,” conceptualized by the Chinese Academy of Engineering has accorded priority to big data, intelligent sensing, cognitive computing, machine learning, and swarm intelligence. Premier Li Keqiang, has noted that China “now stands at the same starting line with the developed countries in information and especially in the Internet and even has more advantages than them in some aspects,’’ and the new Chinese ‘Internet Plus’ strategy which will act as the new driving force for economic development. The Chinese national AI development plan will see an investment of nearly US $22.15 billion over the next three years and US $59.07 billion by 2025 making China a major player in AI.
AI in China is led by Baidu, an internet giant, Alibaba, a major marketing company, and Tencent developer of the mobile app WeChat, a Facebook competitor. Among these, Baidu was the first to venture into AI related research based on Duer, a system used in home devices and driverless cars. According to Zhang Yaqin, President of Baidu, “AI has become a key driving force behind Chinese companies. In the AI era, China can innovate not only in products, but also in technologies,” At the heart of AI is data and LiKaifu, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital company to create successful Chinese start-ups has stated that China has a “huge database” and by 2020, “China will hold 20 percent of the global data, which is expected to reach 44 trillion gigabytes”.
There are also a number of military spinoffs of AI which the Chinese are keen to harness for national security. In 2016, an official of the China Aerospace and Industry Corp observed that his country was planning to develop cruise missiles that will have “very high level of Artificial Intelligence and automation,” and will allow users to “control them in real time, or to use a fire-and-forget mode, or even to add more tasks to missiles in-flight.” In November 2017, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force carried conducted two successful test firings of DF-17 “hypersonic” ballistic missile. This “hypersonic glide vehicle” or HGV is an “unmanned, rocket-launched, maneuverable aircraft that glides and skips” and is expected to be operational by 2020.
In the maritime domain, Artificial Intelligence for underwater operations is a game changer. It allows autonomous underwater drones, sea gliders or the Chinese Type 12 Haiyi (Sea Wing) autonomous underwater vehicles to monitor marine environment as also track living and nonliving activity under the sea. The Chinese were unnerved after a PLA Navy ship retrieved and confiscated a US Navy underwater drone that is capable of sustained underwater operations up to five months. China is making impressive progress in its underwater defenses and plans to invest US $ 290 million on seabed observation systems to be deployed in the western Pacific Ocean. This underwater network of sensors will be capable of obtaining real-time information about bathymetric conditions and seabed activities that are critical for US submarine detection which is known to be forward deployed in the Pacific Ocean.
It is well known that the Chinese are adept at offensive cyber warfare and have successfully hacked into a number of sensitive military data networks of the US. China has now successfully hardened its cyber defenses to enhance own data security by developing next-generation internet communications which is “unhackable”. The quantum communication and cryptography network is protected against security breaches and hacks, and is effective up to 400 kilometers. Although experts believe that various devices in these network can still be hacked, China is surely ‘leaving the West behind in pursuit of this technology’ and an official of the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology stated, “We plan to use the [Jinan] network for national [defense], finance, and other fields, and hope to spread it out as a pilot that if successful, can be used across China and the whole world.”
A June 2017 Pentagon report to Congress acknowledges the “notable advance in cryptography research” and the ‘enormous prospects’ of China’s first quantum satellite Micius (launched in 2016) will result in more secure communications. In June 2017 it was reported that China is “likely to launch more quantum-enabled satellites to start building a network”.
The PLA has acknowledged that AI is a ‘disruptive technology’ and would be a game changer in any future warfare. It is studying the military applications of AI in command and control, decision-making and intelligent military systems and platforms. The Chinese hope to harness the potential military applications of AI to stand up to the more powerful military of the US which is investing enormous intellectual-technological capital in developing a robust AI for military applications. China has adeptly explored the US technology industry for AI and apparently succeeded in bringing home a number of leading-edge technologies that have potential military applications by “slipping through the gaps in the existing safeguards,” It also succeeded in getting a veteran artificial intelligence specialist working with Microsoft to return home and appointed him as the Chief Operating Officer at Baidu to oversee development of AI. However, the Chinese are quick to argue “Ten years ago, you could say Chinese companies were copying from the U.S... we are going from that to innovation on the product side’ and “AI, being the next platform or big thing, we want to be part of this.”
The US has been wary of Chinese progress in developing AI and other disruptive technologies and believes it could give a significant boost to the Chinese military capability. A White Paper commissioned by the US Department of Defence states that a number of Chinese startup companies with links to the government are investing in the US to gain access to critical technologies such as “AI, rocket engines, ship sensors and printers that could produce high-tech components such as computer screens for military jets”. In fact 3D printers have been part of the inventory of the PLA since 2015 and were in operational use for manufacturing some parts for J-15, J-16, J-31 and J-20 stealth fighter aircraft. Similarly, The PLA Navy has been using 3D printers on board its warships and in 2015, the Type 052D destroyer Harbin successfully manufactured on board a wheel gear, part for its engine “thousands of miles from parts suppliers in the ship’s home country”. The ship also has a special compartment that is fitted with a computer, 3D printer, casting equipment, and materials.
India faces Chinese AI Threat
First, China is harnessing Artificial Intelligence for ‘fire-and-forget’ cruise missiles. The DF-17 is a “hypersonic glide vehicle” (HGV) and is capable of hitting counter value targets particularly the nuclear installations. According to a Chinese analyst, HGV technology is now part of the nuclear strategy among China, the US and Russia and “Compared to conventional ballistic missiles, HGVs are more complex and difficult to intercept. The US, Japan and India should be worried about China’s developments in HGV technology because it can reach targets quicker and more accurately, with military bases in Japan and even nuclear reactors in India being targeted,”
Second, in the Indian Ocean; the state-run China Daily reported that AI technologies were being incorporated into a new generation of anti-ship missiles through autonomous targeting capabilities. Further, experts believe that the Chinese are “making their machines more creative” and “a little bit of automation gives the machines a tremendous boost” which can be characterized as “remote warfare”. In this context the Chinese plans to augment underwater capabilities by collecting information about the Indian Ocean by its fleet of Ocean Surveillance vessels and use AI to accurately model the ocean and predict operations.
In the short term, the PLA can be expected to closely follow AI related developments and integrate in its military strategy. In the long term, there will be a robust civil-military integration of AI built around indigenously/copied systems and platforms. This will surely add to the war-fighting tool kit of the PLA and provide a lethal mix of cutting-edge technologies with conventional forces that could encourage dangerous escalations of a new kind resulting in destabilization, and adversely affect regional security.