China Fears that Artificial Intelligence and Drones could Cause Accidental War

The report author believes that countries need to define "the norms of armed conflict" for autonomous systems.


Artificial intelligence has been increasingly used for various purposes, including the military. While this kind of technology saves the lives of several people and facilitates the existence of some missions, it is still viewed with some trepidation by Chinese officials who fear it may accidentally cause a conflict between different nations.

Experts and politicians in China are worried that the rush to integrate Artificial Intelligence into weapons and military equipment could lead to a war between nations.

China on Artificial Intelligence

In the Xinjiang region, the Chinese Police Forces claim to have long used artificial intelligence (AI) to fight “terrorists,” using facial recognition techniques and advanced big data analysis. It is just one of the examples of the AI’s Dragon ambitions, described in the latest report by the American authoritative think tank Center for New American Security (CNAS).

In four different trips to the country last year alone, Gregory C. Allen, who also is the author of the report, reconstructed the recent evolution of Chinese strategic thinking on artificial intelligence. The goal is clear – to become global leaders in the sector.

The boost to the Chinese efforts in the AI field comes first of all from President Xi Jinping’s leadership. The leader of the Dragon “believes that being at the forefront of artificial intelligence technologies is crucial for the future of global, military and economic competition.”

Already in July 2017, recalls Allen, the Council of State issued the Development Plan for a new generation of artificial intelligence (AIDP). Together with the “Made in China 2025” program, issued two years earlier, the document “forms the heart of Chinese strategy in the IIA.” In the last year, such programmatic references have been added to the attention of the ruling class, as well as a greater degree of research funding. Last October, the Politburo study session on the topic was chaired by the Xi himself.


Then, “at least two regional governments – the expert points out – are committed to investing 100 billion yuan ($14.7 billion) each in the sector.” Basically, “there is the belief that China must pursue global leadership in the field and reduce the vulnerable dependence on the importation of foreign technologies.”

In this regard, particular attention should be paid to the military uses of artificial intelligence. “Several Chinese officials have recently begun to raise concerns in various diplomatic forums about the arms race associated with AI, as well as the need for international cooperation to define new standards.” Allen still notes, in parallel “the Chinese leadership considers the increase in the military use of artificial intelligence to be inevitable.”

Not surprisingly, Beijing “has already exported armored platforms and surveillance systems that use the AI.” Among these, there is the Blowfish A2, the military drone “with significant autonomous combat capabilities” built by the Ziyan company and sold to the United Arab Emirates, with export prospects also towards Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Similar systems have already seen their use within national borders for surveillance purposes. General Wang Nign of the Chinese Police Forces told of the success of the use of AI technologies in Xinjiang province, where “the Chinese official use artificial intelligence applied to big data to fight terrorists.” The Beijing authorities intercepted “1,200 terrorist organizations while planning attacks; we use technologies to identify and localize their activities, including smart city systems and facial recognition.”

And if the goal is a global competition, for Beijing the opponent to watch is undoubtedly Washington, meaning the game as “a race between two giants.” In this challenge, “the Chinese government and industry – explains Allen – believe they have largely filled the gap with the United States in the field of artificial intelligence, both for research and development and for commercial products.”

Still, the Chinese still feel the need to regain ground compared to the Americans in some specific sectors – top talent, technical standards, software and semiconductor platforms. If on the last two aspects, the aim is to strengthen national capacities and to disengage from import dependency, on the first two, Beijing’s plans still aim to learn from the West.

The CNAS report notes that China is particularly interested in closing this important gap. Chinese companies such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Huawei have established new projects to develop AI accelerator hardware. Government money is being poured into these initiatives, and the industry is testing other methods to obtain foreign experience. These include the recent proposed acquisition of US chip designer Qualcomm by Singapore’s Broadcom, which was blocked by President Trump for reasons of national security.

China fears accidental war

According to a report published, Chinese officials are increasingly worried that AI used for military purposes may end up affecting world peace. A scenario raised by one of the officials to the report’s author, Gregory C. Allen, addresses the unintended increase in hostility from the use of drones.

Drones are increasingly automated, to the point that some American models can fly and make simple decisions alone, such as flying in circles around a target. China has been working on models of more aggressive drones, such as the Blowfish A2, which is sold to other countries and announced as capable of full autonomy even to participate in scheduled attacks.

“The specific scenario described to me [by one anonymous Chinese official] is unintentional escalation related to the use of a drone,” said Gregory C. Allen, an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS.

Image: Reproduction / Military Factory

According to Allen, the use of drones makes the decisions of the nations a little more daring, since they do not bring danger to humans who would be piloting the ships. The same goes for the other side, which can knock down a drone that enters a restricted area of a country, which could be considered as an act of cyber warfare, or “cyber warfare.”

“The point made to me was that it’s not clear how either side will interpret certain behaviors [involving autonomous equipment],” says Allen. “The side sending out an autonomous drone will think it’s not a big deal because there’s no casualty risk, while the other side could shoot it down for the same reason. But there’s no agreed framework on what message is being sent by either sides’ behavior.”

As the standards for drone use are unclear, Allen believes that each country may have its interpretation about the use of stand-alone equipment, which can lead to conflict. “The side that sends autonomous drones will think it’s no big deal, because there’s no downside risk, while the other side could knock him down at the same risk. But there is no structured agreement on what message is being sent by the attitude of either side.”

After all, it is possible for a drone or robot to understand that they need to shoot troops from the invaded side. Given this, how would the fact be interpreted: an automated action of the equipment or the decision of a commander?

The official Chinese acknowledge that both China and the United States are the only super forces in Artificial Intelligence. And they both have the talent, the capital and the technology they need to improve in this arena, even with each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

But while a certain competition between China and the US is expected, Allen says cooperation is also needed – especially when it comes to these military issues.

The author of the report concludes that even if there is a competition between the United States and China for the development of artificial intelligence, there must be cooperation between nations, especially regarding the use of technology for military purposes.

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