• Credit: Shutterstock/stefano carniccio
     Credit: Shutterstock/stefano carniccio

AI Looms Large in Race for Global Superiority

September 18, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The outcome is as uncertain as the path to research success.


The United States and its great power rivals are taking different paths in their pursuit of artificial intelligence (AI), but all three are devoting significant resources to what they believe will be a game changer. Their uses of AI also are likely to be different, as their approach to ethics varies according to each nation’s principles.

A breakout session panel provided a global view on the race for AI during the third and final day of the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence and National Security Summit being held online September 16-18. Panelists assessed the differences in AI research and applications among Russia, China and the United States.

Russia trails China and the United States in all metrics of AI, stated Margarita Konaev, research fellow, Center for Security and Emerging Technology. However, its military is leading the country’s efforts to catch up in key areas, most of which involve military applications.

She noted that while Russia is not going to lead the world in AI, it has taken a pragmatic approach. Over the past five years, its Ministry of Defense has established centers that focus on emerging technologies within industry. The goal is to use AI to enhance strengths and fix weaknesses.

Russia has three main areas of investment for AI: military robotics and unmanned systems; electronic warfare capabilities, some of which already have been used in Ukraine and Syria; and information warfare, including cyber war. She offered that the Russian military is known to move faster in experimentation when it comes to operational conditions. They’re quick to test, and they learn limitations under operational conditions.

Meanwhile, China’s progress in AI has been significant, reported Elsa Kania, adjunct senior fellow, technology and national security program, Center for a New American Security. China has made no secret of its goal to lead the world in AI, and the military in particular has seen greater progress than expected. This includes a long list of applications such as suicide drones, autonomous weapon systems, electronic warfare, cyber operations, wargaming, data analytics and situational awareness.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is grappling with internal reforms, she noted, and so is still wrestling with AI concepts and experimentation. The PLA does believe that these capabilities are core to a future decision advantage and information superiority, so China likely will continue its stated goal of significant investments in AI.

The United States is conducting AI research and development while also looking into side effects. Col. P.J. Maykish, USAF, director of analysis, National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, said that neither Russia nor China is considering how AI will affect elements, such as ethics, to the degree that the United States does. Ethics is a major consideration for U.S. AI development, he offered, adding that it comes down to three issues: civil liberties, human rights and privacy. “China and Russia are less inhibited about how they not only pursue AI, but also how they pursue general artificial intelligence as separate and distinct from how the United States would do so,” he stated.

He called for putting together a coalition of nations that are focused on common values. “When we compete with Russia and China, we can never compete with Russia and China alone,” he said. Conversely, he also warned against overlooking others who might use AI for nefarious purposes. “We shouldn’t ignore North Korea or nonstate actors who could improve their standing, perhaps by using AI to manufacture and weaponize pathogens,” he stated.

But the United States must continue to grow its AI effort, the experts said. Kania noted that, looking at AI in the United States, there clearly has been a rapid ramping up of programs over the past couple of years. She added that the nation needs to expand its efforts in education. China has launched national educational initiatives in AI, including designating AI as a major field of study. And Col. Maykish was forward-looking in describing the importance of AI.

“We’re in a competition for the fundamental infrastructure on which nations will be built,” he declared.

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