China May Soon Surpass America on the Artificial Intelligence Battlefield

Rendering of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle. Flickr/Creative Commons

Swarms of unmanned aircraft could target high-value U.S. weapons platforms.

The rapidity of recent Chinese advances in artificial intelligence indicates that the country is capable of keeping pace with, or perhaps even overtaking, the United States in this critical emerging technology. The successes of major Chinese technology companies, notably Baidu Inc., Alibaba Group and Tencent Holding Ltd.—and even a number of start-ups—have demonstrated the dynamism of these private-sector efforts in artificial intelligence. From speech recognition to self-driving cars, Chinese research is cutting edge. Although the military dimension of China’s progress in artificial intelligence has remained relatively opaque, there is also relevant research occurring in the People’s Liberation Army research institutes and the Chinese defense industry. Evidently, the PLA recognizes the disruptive potential of the varied military applications of artificial intelligence, from unmanned weapons systems to command and control. Looking forward, the PLA anticipates that the advent of artificial intelligence will fundamentally change the character of warfare, ultimately resulting in a transformation from today’s “informationized” (信息化) ways of warfare to future “intelligentized” (智能化) warfare.

The Chinese leadership has prioritized artificial intelligence at the highest levels, recognizing its expansive applications and strategic implications. The initial foundation for China’s progress in artificial intelligence was established through long-term research funded by national science and technology plans, such as the 863 Program. Notably, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–20) called for breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, which was also highlighted in the 13th Five-Year National Science and Technology Innovation Plan. The new initiatives focus on artificial intelligence and have been characterized as the “China Brain Plan” (中国脑计划), which seeks to enhance understandings of human and artificial intelligence alike. In addition, the Internet Plus and Artificial Intelligence, a three-year implementation plan for artificial intelligence (2016–18), emphasizes the development of artificial intelligence and its expansive applications, including in unmanned systems, in cyber security and for social governance. Beyond these current initiatives, the Chinese Academy of Engineering has proposed an “Artificial Intelligence 2.0 Plan,” and the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China has reportedly tasked a team of experts to draft a plan for the development of artificial intelligence through 2030. The apparent intensity of this support and funding will likely enable continued, rapid advances in artificial intelligence with dual-use applications.

China’s significant progress in artificial intelligence must be contextualized by the national strategy of civil-military integration or “military-civil fusion” (军民融合) that has become a high-level priority under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. Consequently, it is not unlikely that nominally civilian technological capabilities will eventually be utilized in a military context. For instance, An Weiping (安卫平), deputy chief of staff of the PLA’s Northern Theater Command, has highlighted the importance of deepening civil-military integration, especially for such “strategic frontier technologies” as artificial intelligence. Given this strategic approach, the boundaries between civilian and military research and development tend to blur. In a notable case, Li Deyi (李德毅) acts as the director of the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence, and he is affiliated with Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Concurrently, Li Deyi is a major general in the PLA who serves as deputy director of the Sixty-First Research Institute, under the aegis of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Equipment Development Department.