The Future Ruler of the World?

China Tech Threat’s Future of BIS project is out today with a new paper: “Build an AI Workforce at BIS to Strengthen Controls and Stop Illicit Acquisition of American Artificial Intelligence Technologies”.

AI – which essentially causes machines to perform human-like functions – is one technology that is poised to live up to the hype. Five years ago Russian President Vladimir Putin said “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

What would make him make such a sweeping statement about something we normally associate with iPhone autocorrect and Netflix recommendations?

In a military context, AI has enormous application for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, logistics, command and control capabilities, lethal autonomous weapons systems, and many other components of warfighting. This matters, as the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has written, because, “The ability of a machine to perceive, evaluate, and act more quickly and accurately than a human represents a competitive advantage in any field—civilian or military.”

In other words, the battles of tomorrow may very well be won or lost based on which military has the best AI technologies.

Right now the Chinese military is racing to achieve (or sustain) this competitive advantage. The NSCAI report affirms the PRC’s intentions: “China’s plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans. It is an AI peer in many areas and an AI leader in some applications. We take seriously China’s ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s AI leader within a decade.”

According to a Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) report titled “Harnessed Lightning: How the Chinese Military is Adopting Artificial Intelligence,” released in October 2021, the PLA spends more than $1.6 billion each year on AI-related systems and equipment. CSET went on to note that, based on an analysis of 343 PLA contracts with AI firms, the PLA seems most focused on procuring AI for intelligence analysis, predictive maintenance, information warfare, and navigation and target recognition in autonomous vehicles. And Elsa Kania of the Brookings Institution has written, “While there is currently no direct evidence that the PLA has formally fielded a weapons system fully consistent with the definition of ‘AI weapon,’ a number of systems are analogous or comparable in their functionality.”

It’s one thing to have countries compete against one another for the commanding heights of technology. A Chinese victory would be a catastrophe. Not only would China gain a perhaps decisive military edge over the U.S., but the world has already seen how China has deployed AI for nefarious purposes in the genocide and repression of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of western China. More on that and recommendations on the role BIS can play to push back in upcoming posts.

You can read the latest recommendation here.