Tue, Feb 07, 2017 - Page 9 News List

China’s intelligent weaponry gets smarter

As China asserts itself as a force in artificial intelligence and other high-tech research, the US is left to consider the implications of its slipping control over military technology

By John Markoff and Matthew Rosenberg  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Yusha

Robert Work, the veteran defense official retained as deputy secretary of defense by US President Donald Trump, calls them his “AI dudes.” The breezy moniker belies their serious task: The dudes have been a kitchen Cabinet of sorts, and have advised Work as he has sought to reshape warfare by bringing artificial intelligence (AI) to the battlefield.

Last spring, he asked, “OK, you guys are the smartest guys in AI, right?”

No, the dudes told him, “the smartest guys are at Facebook and Google,” Work recalled in an interview.

Now, increasingly, they are also in China. The US no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology, which is widely seen as the key factor in the next generation of warfare.

The Pentagon’s plan to bring AI to the military is taking shape as Chinese researchers assert themselves in the nascent field. That shift is reflected in surprising commercial advances in AI among Chinese companies.

Last year, for example, Microsoft researchers proclaimed that the company had created software capable of matching human skills in understanding speech.

Although they boasted that they had outperformed their US competitors, a well-known AI researcher who leads a Silicon Valley laboratory for the Chinese Web services company Baidu gently taunted Microsoft, saying that Baidu had achieved similar accuracy with the Chinese language two years earlier.

That, in a nutshell, is the challenge the US faces as it embarks on a new military strategy founded on the assumption of its continued superiority in technologies such as robotics and AI.

First announced last year by former US secretary of defense Ashton Carter, the “Third Offset” strategy provides a formula for maintaining a military advantage in the face of a renewed rivalry with China and Russia.

Well into the 1960s, the US held a military advantage based on technological leadership in nuclear weapons. In the 1970s, that perceived lead shifted to smart weapons, based on brand-new Silicon Valley technologies like computer chips. Now, the nation’s leaders plan on retaining that military advantage with a significant commitment to AI and robotic weapons.

However, the global technology balance of power is shifting. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the US carefully guarded its advantage. It led the world in computer and material science technology, and it jealously hoarded its leadership with military secrecy and export controls.

In the late 1980s, the emergence of the inexpensive and universally available microchip upended the Pentagon’s ability to control technological progress. Now, rather than trickling down from military and advanced corporate laboratories, today’s new technologies increasingly come from consumer electronics firms.

Put simply, the companies that make the fastest computers are the same ones that put things under our Christmas trees.

As consumer electronics manufacturing has moved to Asia, both Chinese companies and the nation’s government laboratories are making major investments in AI.

The advance of the Chinese was underscored last month when veteran Microsoft AI specialist Lu Qi (陸奇) left the company to become chief operating officer at Baidu, where he will oversee the company’s ambitious plan to become a global leader in AI.

Last year, Tencent, developer of the mobile app WeChat, a Facebook competitor, created an AI research laboratory and began investing in US-based AI companies.

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