On 7 March 7 2017, Lieutenant General Liu Guozhi of the Science and Technology Commission of the Central Military Commission stated that “Artificial intelligence … will bring about fundamental changes, and even lead to a profound military revolution.” (Wang Liang et al., “NPC deputy Liu Guozhi: Artificial intelligence will accelerate the process of military transformation“, CNR Military, 7 March 2017). This statement foresaw China’s massive national effort to become the world leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI), launched in July 2017 with the “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” (新一代人工智能发展规划) and its 150 billion dollars investment plan (Sarah Hsu, “China is investing heavily into Artificial intelligence, and could soon catch up with US”, Forbes, July 3, 2017). Meanwhile, always in 2017, the Chinese National Engineering Laboratory for Deep Learning Technology was officially established (Meng Jing, “China’s first ‘deep learning lab’ intensifies challenge to US in artificial intelligence race », South China Morning Post, 21 February 2017).
In the meantime, Chinese companies also develop AI-powered robotics on an industrial scale. In other terms, China integrates the development of AI, and, in the same dynamic develops what Hélène Lavoix defines as its “AI-power” and its “AI-governance” (Hélène Lavoix “Artificial intelligence- forces, drivers and stakes” and “When Artificial Intelligence will Power Geopolitics – Presenting AI” and in “Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning – The New AI-World in the Making”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, March 26, 2018).
It is against that background that the Chinese militarization of AI takes place: the Chinese military develops rapidly the integration of AI to its air, maritime, land, cyber, and space force projection capabilities. This process is managed through a very close military-civil relationship established between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and civil research-development laboratories and industrial companies (Elsa B. Kania in “The PLA’s trajectory from informatized to “intelligentized” warfare”, The Bridge, June 8, 2017). This militarization of AI leads us to wonder about the consequences of this process, not only in operational terms, but also in terms of strategy and of grand strategy, i.e the level where political, economic and strategic interests intersect.
In the first article of this series, we are going to focus on the way the PLA works at integrating AI to weapons systems. Then, we shall see how this process is integrated into the civil development of AI and robotics through a process of “military-civil fusion”. Then we shall wonder about the strategic meaning of this AI development of the Chinese military.
AI and Chinese weapons systems
The Science and Technology Commission of the Chinese Central Military Commission is leading the research and development effort of the PLA in the unmanned systems field, and especially in “intelligent unmanned systems and systems of systems” (Aleksandra Urman, “Smart killer robots: China’s military future could rest on artificial intelligence”, The Defense post, January 2, 2018). As emphasized by Elsa B. Kania, the Chinese development of unmanned systems and artificial intelligence is closely linked to the civil research and developments and applications of AI (“Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission: Chinese Advances in Unmanned Systems and the Military Applications of Artificial Intelligence—the PLA’s Trajectory towards Unmanned, “Intelligentized” Warfare”, The Long Term Strategy Group, February 23, 2017).
For example, in 2016, the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation succeeded in operating a swarm of seventy small-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These UAVs were operated autonomously. In 2017, the same company claimed it had succeeded in launching an intelligent drone swarm, directed by autonomous ground control and ad hoc networks (however, the company didn’t release information about the date and place of this test, see Jon Walker, “Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) – Comparing the USA, Israel and China”, Techemergence, September 1, 2017).
The same dynamic applies to the research-development of “intelligentized missiles”. For example, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CISCA) works on the development of future cruise missiles with a very high level of automation and AI integration (Zhao Lei, “Nation’s next generation of missiles to be highly flexible”, China Daily, 2016-08-19). Command and control could even be exercised in real-time while the tasks and targets of the missiles could be changed while flying. Wang Changqing, Director of the General Design Department of the Third Academy of CISCA emphasizes that
“Artificial intelligence could enable missiles to have advanced capabilities in sensing, decision-making, and execution of missions, including through gaining a degree of “cognition” and the ability to learn… Moreover, our future cruise missiles will have a very high level of artificial intelligence and automation” (Zhao Lei, ibid).
The PLA is also developing and testing other kinds of unmanned vehicles for the army, and the navy, such as reconnaissance drones and unmanned submarine (Stephen Chen, “China’s plan to use artificial intelligence to boost the thinking skills of nuclear submarine commanders“, South China Morning Post, 04 February 2018).
Meanwhile, the militarization of AI is studied for its potential in cyberspace operations. This thinking is done by the Strategic Support Force, dedicated to electronic warfare, in order to use drones equipped with sensors to capture electronic signals and to support electronic warfare missions (William Carter, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities “Chinese Advances in Emerging Technologies and their Implications for U.S. National Security””, CSIS, January 9, 2018).
The emphasis on autonomy is a crucial issue for the development of military unmanned vehicles and weapon systems, because of the complexity and potential dangerousness of the environment where they may have to operate. It must be remembered that, by now, these missions would cover the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, data links, and sensors for data harvesting (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Chinese Chinese-Russian robot and space cooperation (1)- China”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, January 8, 2018).
The AI-robotics civil-military fusion
These developments are closely linked to the progress that are made in civil research, especially in the way AI-endowed robots can execute tasks of a growing complexity, (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Chinese artificial intelligence revolution”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 13, 2017). China, besides U.S. private companies, is at the forefront of the twin dynamics of robots and artificial intelligence development (Ma Si “Smartening the world with robots”, China Daily, 2017-09-25).
Meet Jueying, a cute robot developed by Zhejiang University: Jueying is 1 meter long and can carry a 20 kg load and walk at 6 km per hour in different conditions. It will be used in security tasks and disaster relief. pic.twitter.com/qfwPPe7gYE
— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) February 11, 2018
The mammoth progress made in the AI-robotics field is driving the Chinese “civil-military fusion”led by the PLA and by the Chinese Government through the personal involvement of President Xi Jinping, which massively supports the integration of AI by the Chinese military (“China’s Xi calls for closer civil-military integration to boost army combativeness“, Xinhuanet, 2015-03-12). The “civil-military fusion” allows the Chinese military to benefit from the developments accompanying the dynamics allying robotics and AI (Lorand Laskai, “Civil-Military Fusion and the PLA’s Pursuit of Dominance in Emerging Technologies », The JamesTown Foundation, April 9, 2018).
This dynamics has been officially defined by the government in the “Made in China” report of 2015, which states the national political will to turn China into the international leader in, among others, electric/smart car, information technology, aerospace equipment, agriculture machinery, which are all related to AI and robotics, actually considered as a sub-field of AI (“Made in China 2025” Plan, The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, May 19, 2015 and Jean-Michel Valantin, “China: Towards the digital ecological revolution?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, October 22, 2017; Helene Lavoix, “When Artificial Intelligence will Power Geopolitics – Presenting AI“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 27 Nov 2017 ).
This policy supports giant partnerships as well as mergers and acquisitions between Chinese companies and leading foreign companies. For example, the mammoth Chinese robotics company Midea has now acquired the German giant of industrial robotics Kuka (Li Xuena, Wang Cixin, Zhang Boling, “China’s factories are building a robot nation”, ChinaFile, March 10, 2015). In other terms, by developing literally a robot workforce coordinated by multiple levels of AI, China installs itself at the vanguard of “intelligent” industrial productivity on a global scale (Jane Perlez, Paul Mozur, Jonathan Ansfield, “China’s technology could upset the global trade order”, The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2017). In 2017 only, China produced more than 120 000 robots (“China produces more than 100 000 industrial robots in first ten months”, Global Times, 2017/12/13). These developments are “channelled” in order to drive both the civil and military integration of AI and technology transfers from civil developments to the military (“Military-Civil Integration Development Committee Established”, Xinhua, January 23, 2017, http://news.xinhuanet.com/finance/2017-01/23/c_129458492.htm).
Clausewitz and the “intelligentization” of the People’s Liberation Army
The development of the links between AI and robots, among them drones, and weapons systems is not limited to the integration of these unmanned and “intelligent” systems in the arsenal of the PLA. The PLA thinks about the way the militarization of AI could lead to what Lieutenant General Liu Guozhi qualifies as “entering into the intelligentization era” for the PLA (Elsa B. Kania, Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power, Center for a New American Security, November 2017).
As a result, it is highly likely that the PLA studies closely the strategic potential that could emerge out of the integration of AI at all levels of the military, as well as to the conduct of war operations. In other terms, integrating AI could trigger a transformation of the PLA, from the current “informatized” warfare, based on the circulation of information throughout informatized networks, to “intelligentized” warfare operations. The latter would imply managing operations by AI-led air, ground and sea vehicles, by AI-led entire units, as well as by AI cyber warfare units (Kania, “The PLA’s trajectory from informatized to “intelligentized” warfare”, The Bridge, June 8, 2017).
However, these capabilities are specific to the tactical level. It is possible that the PLA is also thinking about the way AI could also be integrated into its Command and Control capabilities. This is signaled by some articles written by Chinese officers and researchers (Elsa B. Kania, Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power, Center for a New American Security, November 2017). This integration of AI at this level of command could be a powerful support for joint coordination and decision-making process. The linkage between these different AI’s military levels could thus turn AI and AI-powered technology into a new way to manage the strategic level of operations management of an entire theatre of operations (Edward Luttwak, Strategy, the logic of war and Peace, 1987).
Building upon Hélène Lavoix’s idea of “AI-power”, this possible evolution of the Chinese military leads us to suggest that the PLA is currently developing its own “AI-firepower”. This new Chinese “AI-firepower” must be understood not only in military and tactical terms, but also in strategic terms. In this regard, Carl von Clausewitz defines the role of the military as a tool to wage war and establishes that “War … is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, chapter 1, 1 832, Penguin Classics, London, p.101). As such, war is a duel of wills through the exertion of coercion, that can be imposed under the numerous forms of the military capabilities.
Thus, from a Clausewitzian point of view, AI could dramatically increase the coercion capability of the application of the Chinese military and political will through the enhanced capacity of physical, electronic and information military violence that it could muster and project on its opponents. In other words, through the intelligentization of the Chinese military, Chinese “AI firepower”could become an “extension” and an enhancer of the Chinese political will, and thus fully participate in the novelty of “AI governance”, as defined by Hélène Lavoix, and of the Chinese geopolitical power (Hélène Lavoix, “When Artificial Intelligence will Power Geopolitics – Presenting AI” (open access), The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 27, 2017).
If we use the Clausewitzian perspective, it appears that the way the PLA considers the integration of AI to its capabilities, and possibly to its operations, could turn AI into a force, rapidity and precision multiplier, which would thus be applied to what is today an enormous and growing military apparatus (Gavin Fernando, “China is ramping up its military spending to 224 billion per year”, News.com, March 6, 2018). This military evolution is taking place in the physical as well as in the cyber world.
With the next article, we shall look at the implications of this intelligentization process in terms of Chinese grand strategy and geopolitics, and what this means for the newly emerging AI-world (Hélène Lavoix, “When Artificial Intelligence will Power Geopolitics – Presenting AI”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 27, 2017).
Featured image: General view of the pit n°1 in the museum of Xi’an, Terracotta Warriors, by StormyDog101, Public Domain, PixaBay
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.