Image credit : Council on Foreign Relations
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has enjoyed technological dominance in the military. However, this advantage is being swiftly lost by China, its major adversary, who appears intent to overtake the rest of the world as a leader in cutting-edge fields like artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), which have the potential to revolutionize combat.
The goal is to incorporate these technologies into the People’s Liberation Army as Beijing concentrates on a defense strategy for the “new era,” producing a “world-class” force that counters American conventional military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific and shifts the balance of power.
President Xi Jinping emphasized Beijing’s commitment to AI development and “intelligent warfare” — a reference to AI-enabled military weapons — during the 20th Party Congress last October, underscoring how crucial AI has become for China’s national security and military aspirations.
China has not only set a goal of dominating AI by 2030; Beijing has also adopted a military-civilian fusion strategy to get there. By removing boundaries between China’s civilian research and commercial sectors and its military and defense industrial sectors, this strategy has allowed the nation to accelerate defense advances.
The outcomes are startling. According to Stanford University’s most recent AI Index Report, China already produces the majority of the world’s top AI experts and is home to the top nine institutions in the world for publishing papers on AI.
Moreover, among the top 10 corporations performing AI research are said to include Tencent Holdings, Alibaba Group Holdings, and Huawei Technologies.
According to Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered AI, Chinese professionals publish 27.5% of all AI journal publications worldwide, compared to 12% by American researchers.
Beijing’s quest for technological hegemony, though, goes beyond AI. According to a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China is outperforming Western democracies in terms of research output in 37 of the 44 technological fields that are deemed essential for both economic growth and military power. These fields include space, robotics, energy, the environment, advanced materials, and key areas of quantum technology.
As a result, researchers like Amy J. Nelson, a Brookings Institution expert on emerging technologies, have stated that overall, the U.S. and China are already “neck and neck in technological innovation as best we can measure.”
How these technologies will be put to use is crucial, she claims.
“China is renowned for its data collection and thus algorithm development, which will likely define its advantage going forward,” Nelson said.
“The U.S. struggles to reach equivalence in this area, so if China’s data collection efforts make for a measurable improvement to its algorithms relative to U.S. ingenuity, China could take the lead.”
Why does this matter?
Although the PLA believes that AI and machine learning are essential for advancing next-generation combat, nothing is known about the precise integration of AI or the operational paradigms the PLA will use.
The use of cutting-edge technology, including as AI, quantum information, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things, is, however, already acknowledged by Beijing in its 2019 Defense White Paper as “gathering pace in the military field.”
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Washington has been quite concerned about China’s technical advancement, which is said to be a major factor in the country’s decision to place broad limits on semiconductor shipments to Beijing.