By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN
“Philosophically, intellectually, in every way, human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence” famously remarked Henry Kissinger.
In November 2022, the world was suddenly taken over by the launch of Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer or famously known as ChatGPT, a large language model (LLM)-based chatbot developed by American Artificial Intelligence Company, OpenAI. The chatbot enables users to generate and steer a conversation based on given responses.
Since then, the technology has grown exponentially, with major tech companies around the world jumping in with various artificial intelligence technologies. With the rise of multimodal AI, which combines multiple audio, visual, and textual data sources from different modalities, the technology has huge potential in areas ranging from medicine to media and from the financial sector to defence.
With the technological advancements in the digital sector concerning artificial intelligence, it has also created an opportunity for countries around the world to potentially cooperate and compete in this sector.
Along with market competition, what we are noticing is nothing more than a great power tech game in which the established superpower, America, and the rising superpower, China, are competing with each other to secure their interests.
Great Power Tech Game
American political scientist and writer Ian Bremmer, highlighting that we will never see a cold war like the bipolar or unipolar system alone, states that today the world is branched into three types of distinctive orders. Those three are global security order, global economic order and the global digital order. The third one, he says, will have immense importance. While the first two orders are controlled and dominated by government agencies, the third one is also controlled by technology companies.
The time will come when the private sector in countries will align themselves with the goals of their governments, and then we could notice that the amalgamation of public and private objectives will inevitably make any country superior in this great power tech game.
Artificial intelligence, among other critical and emerging technologies, will be at the heart of such a technology competition or tech war. China has already started galvanising its digital tech infrastructure across the world through initiatives like the Digital Silk Road (DSR). Launched in 2015 as a component of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Digital Silk Road is an attempt by China to catalyse global digitalization progress and digital governance.
Beyond standard infrastructure elements, DSR aims to put forward a China-centric digital order against a US-led western digital order. Artificial intelligence will be a key component in proposed projects under DSR, which will help China solidify its interests.
Russia-Ukraine War and Implications
Both America and China have been closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine. The war in eastern Europe has given opportunities to both great powers to amplify their resources and adapt themselves to the conflict of a modern, tech-driven world.
The Ukraine war is perhaps the first of its kind, a highly tech-driven war in which all kinds of advanced devices have been used. Ukraine’s data and operational analysis were supplemented by the use of AI systems. Further, Russia is believed to be using AI-powered unmanned and uncrewed systems in various operations. China, just like the USA, must have learned the importance of technology in maintaining asymmetric advantage.
It is no secret that the Chinese PLA aims to become a world-class military by the mid-21st century. In the last few years, the PLA and Chinese defence industries have significantly invested in robotics, swarming, and other applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology.
As of now, the problem for China is its dependence on the US and West for primary research and innovations. Whether military or civilian, the research and development that has happened in the US and other western democracies is far beyond what China has the capacity to invest. That is why perhaps Beijing aims to become the world leader in AI by 2030, aiming to surpass its rivals, i.e., the US and the West, technologically and operationally.
From autonomous unmanned vehicles to AI killer robots, the use of AI will fundamentally change the nature of battles as we know it. The Pentagon and PLA both in their own capacity are working towards integrating such systems into their doctrine and fighting tactics.
On its part, America is working on autonomous weapons operated by artificial intelligence. Recently, Gen. Mark Milley, former United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview rightfully stated how advanced technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence will rapidly change the character of war.
In warfare, artificial intelligence will allow any country to make faster decisions, analyse compiled data, and perform various military operations. As Gen. Milley points out, “Artificial intelligence has a huge amount of legal, moral, and ethical implications. It’s extremely powerful and could be optimised for command and control of military operations.”
Pentagon’s ‘Replicator’ Drone Program
Realising that China is working steadfastly towards achieving a level of supremacy in the sector of AI and autonomous weapons vis-à-vis the USA, the Pentagon conceptualised plausible threats generating out of such asymmetry. Recognition of such intricacies led to the establishment of an ambitious program called Replicator.
The program, within the next two years, intends to galvanise the fielding of thousands of autonomous systems, driven by artificial intelligence; across multiple domains to better compete with China.
The programme aims to promote innovation to counter China’s core advantage, i.e., mass which is “more ships, more missiles, more people.” It further aims to invest more in autonomous systems. For fiscal year 2024 itself, the Department of Defense requested US$ 1.8 billion for artificial intelligence. Replicator is intended to pull together all the investments in the AI sector and further scale production.
Democratic AI vs Communist AI
One of the stark differences between America using AI and China using AI can be seen in its usage, especially in the civilian domain. While government surveillance is part of the statecraft and is being used by countries across the world, what separates China is its highly closed society and state apparatus.
Experts are worried about the potential use of AI technology such as facial recognition and system data analysis by the Chinese government to further tighten its grip on power and suppress citizens’ freedom of expression.
This emerging AI War is in fact a war to protect democratic ideals and rule of law on the one hand against totalitarian regimes and suppression of freedom on the other. The inherent checks and balances of democratic governance will prevent any misuse of such AI technologies by those governments.
As of now, the US is mostly leading the efforts of innovation in developing different generative AI systems, in addition to developing clandestine AI to help military forces. China, though it started late, is slowly catching up with its own research and development of AI technologies.
While Google, Microsoft and other companies in the Silicon Valley have done tremendous work in the AI sector, Chinese companies such as Baidu Inc. and Alibaba are also following the course.
As of now China possesses approximately 130 large language models (LLMs), making up 40% of the global total against the United States holding a 50% share. Despite such growth, many of the AI models have yet to establish viable business models. Lack of cooperation amid the ongoing tensions between Beijing and Washington further complicates the situation.
The Chinese private sector has intensified their resources to bridge the gap they have in the AI sector, with the aim of outdoing China’s geopolitical rival in a technology that may determine global power stakes. Tencent, Alibaba Group and ByteDance, among other local Chinese tech giants, are the frontrunners in developing these competing technologies.
Although the US has maintained that edge in civilian AI technology, in the military realm, some experts are of the opinion that the US might be falling behind in AI military technology. Reportedly, China is spending three times more than the U.S. on developing AI tools.
Recently, the CEO of Scale AI testified before a House Armed Services Subcommittee, where he highlighted how the Chinese Communist Party deeply understands the potential for AI to disrupt warfare. Drawing a corollary with the US’s space journey, he said, “AI is China’s Apollo project.”
Once in every generation, there will come some kind of general-purpose technology that will revolutionise the way humans live. Artificial intelligence is one such technology. With its technological advancement, it has the great potential to be used for the greater good of humanity; however, the plausibility of it being used in wars and warfare cannot be denied.
America and China are both working to achieve AI supremacy. With the geopolitical tensions and the great power politics of the 21st century, those who control disruptive military technology such as artificial intelligence will have the upper hand in future wars, where the role of technology will be pivotal.