Artificial intelligence arms race

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A military artificial intelligence arms race is a competition between two or more states to have their military forces equipped with the best artificial intelligence (AI). Since the mid-2010s, many analysts have argued that such a global arms race for better military AI has already begun.[1][2]


More broadly, any competition for superior AI is sometimes framed as an "arms race".[3][4] A quest for military AI dominance overlaps with a quest for dominance in other sectors, especially as a country pursues both economic and military advantage.[5]


Nick Bostrom and others argue an AI risk could cause powers to skimp on safety precautions.[6]

Stephen Cave of the Leverhulme Centre argues the risk is threefold, with the first risk potentially having geopolitical implications, and the second two definitely having geopolitical implications:

i) The dangers of an AI 'race for technological advantage' framing, regardless of whether the race is seriously pursued;

ii) The dangers of an AI 'race for technological advantage' framing and an actual AI race for technological advantage, regardless of whether the race is won;

iii) The dangers of an AI race for technological advantage being won.[7]

Cave argues the risk is compounded in the case of a race to artificial general intelligence, which may present an existential risk.[8]

Arms-race terminology is also sometimes used in the context of competition for economic dominance and "soft power"; for example, the November 2019 'Interim Report' of the United States' National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, while stressing the role of diplomacy in engaging with China and Russia, adopts the language of a competitive arms race.[9] It states that US military-technological superiority is vital to the existing world order[10]:11 and stresses the ongoing US militarization of AI, together with militarization of AI by China and Russia, is for geopolitical purposes:[10]:1-2

Developments in AI cannot be separated from the emerging strategic competition with China and developments in the broader geopolitical landscape. We are concerned that America’s role as the world’s leading innovator is threatened. We are concerned that strategic competitors and non-state actors will employ AI to threaten Americans, our allies, and our values. We know strategic competitors are investing in research and application. It is only reasonable to conclude that AI-enabled capabilities could be used to threaten our critical infrastructure, amplify disinformation campaigns, and wage war.

In Foreign Policy, Paul Scharre warns that rhetoric about an AI arms race could, itself, amplify into a self-fulfilling prophecy.[11]

Stances toward military artificial intelligence[edit]


A cartoon centipede reads books and types on a laptop.
Putin (seated, center) at National Knowledge Day, 2017

Russian General Viktor Bondarev, commander-in-chief of the Russian air force, stated that as early as February 2017, Russia was working on AI-guided missiles that could decide to switch targets mid-flight.[12] Russia’s Military Industrial Committee has approved plans to derive 30 percent of Russia’s combat power from remote controlled and AI-enabled robotic platforms by 2030.[1] Reports by state-sponsored Russian media on potential military uses of AI increased in mid-2017.[13] In May 2017, the CEO of Russia's Kronstadt Group, a defense contractor, stated that "there already exist completely autonomous AI operation systems that provide the means for UAV clusters, when they fulfill missions autonomously, sharing tasks between them, and interact", and that it is inevitable that "swarms of drones" will one day fly over combat zones.[14] Russia has been testing several autonomous and semi-autonomous combat systems, such as Kalashnikov's "neural net" combat module, with a machine gun, a camera, and an AI that its makers claim can make its own targeting judgements without human intervention.[15]

In September 2017, during a National Knowledge Day address to over a million students in 16,000 Russian schools, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated "Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind... Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world". Putin also said it would be better to prevent any single actor achieving a monopoly, but that if Russia became the leader in AI, they would share their "technology with the rest of the world, like we are doing now with atomic and nuclear technology".[16][17] [18]

Russia is establishing a number of organizations devoted to the development of military AI. In March 2018, the Russian government released a 10-point AI agenda, which calls for the establishment of an AI and Big Data consortium, a Fund for Analytical Algorithms and Programs, a state-backed AI training and education program, a dedicated AI lab, and a National Center for Artificial Intelligence, among other initiatives.[19] In addition, Russia recently created a defense research organization, roughly equivalent to DARPA, dedicated to autonomy and robotics called the Foundation for Advanced Studies, and initiated an annual conference on “Robotization of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”[20][21]

The Russian military has been researching a number of AI applications, with a heavy emphasis on semiautonomous and autonomous vehicles. In an official statement on November 1, 2017, Viktor Bondarev, chairman of the Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee, stated that “artificial intelligence will be able to replace a soldier on the battlefield and a pilot in an aircraft cockpit” and later noted that “the day is nearing when vehicles will get artificial intelligence.”[22] Bondarev made these remarks in close proximity to the successful test of Nerehta, an uninhabited Russian ground vehicle that reportedly “outperformed existing [inhabited] combat vehicles.” Russia plans to use Nerehta as a research and development platform for AI and may one day deploy the system in combat, intelligence gathering, or logistics roles.[23] Russia has also reportedly built a combat module for uninhabited ground vehicles that is capable of autonomous target identification—and, potentially, target engagement—and plans to develop a suite of AI-enabled autonomous systems.[24][25][21]

In addition, the Russian military plans to incorporate AI into uninhabited aerial, naval, and undersea vehicles and is currently developing swarming capabilities.[20] It is also exploring innovative uses of AI for remote sensing and electronic warfare, including adaptive frequency hopping, waveforms, and countermeasures.[26][27] Russia has also made extensive use of AI technologies for domestic propaganda and surveillance, as well as for information operations directed against the United States and U.S. allies.[28][29][21]

The Russian government has strongly rejected any ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems, suggesting that such a ban could be ignored.[30][31]


China is pursuing a strategic policy of 'military-civil fusion' on AI for global technological supremacy.[10][32] According to a February 2019 report by Gregory C. Allen of the Center for a New American Security, China’s leadership – including paramount leader Xi Jinping – believes that being at the forefront in AI technology is critical to the future of global military and economic power competition.[5] Chinese military officials have said that their goal is to incorporate commercial AI technology to "narrow the gap between the Chinese military and global advanced powers."[5] The close ties between Silicon Valley and China, and the open nature of the American research community, has made the West's most advanced AI technology easily available to China; in addition, Chinese industry has numerous home-grown AI accomplishments of its own, such as Baidu passing a notable Chinese-language speech recognition capability benchmark in 2015.[33] As of 2017, Beijing's roadmap aims to create a $150 billion AI industry by 2030.[34] Before 2013, Chinese defense procurement was mainly restricted to a few conglomerates; however, as of 2017, China often sources sensitive emerging technology such as drones and artificial intelligence from private start-up companies.[35] One Chinese state has pledged to invest $5 billion in AI. Beijing has committed $2 billion to an AI development park.[36] The Japan Times reported in 2018 that annual private Chinese investment in AI is under $7 billion per year. AI startups in China received nearly half of total global investment in AI startups in 2017; the Chinese filed for nearly five times as many AI patents as did Americans.[37]

China published a position paper in 2016 questioning the adequacy of existing international law to address the eventuality of fully autonomous weapons, becoming the first permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to broach the issue.[38] In 2018, Xi called for greater international cooperation in basic AI research.[39] Chinese officials have expressed concern that AI such as drones could lead to accidental war, especially in the absence of international norms.[40] In 2019, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper lashes out at China for selling drones capable of taking life with no human oversight.[41]

United States[edit]

The Sea Hunter sails out to sea
The Sea Hunter, an autonomous US warship, 2016

In 2014, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel posited the "Third Offset Strategy" that rapid advances in artificial intelligence will define the next generation of warfare.[42] According to data science and analytics firm Govini, the U.S. Department of Defense increased investment in artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing from $5.6 billion in 2011 to $7.4 billion in 2016.[43] However, the civilian NSF budget for AI saw no increase in 2017.[34] Japan Times reported in 2018 that the United States private investment is around $70 billion per year.[37] The November 2019 'Interim Report' of the United States' National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence confirmed that AI is critical to US technological military superiority.[10]

The U.S. has many military AI combat programs, such as the Sea Hunter autonomous warship, which is designed to operate for extended periods at sea without a single crew member, and to even guide itself in and out of port.[15] From 2017, a temporary US Department of Defense directive requires a human operator to be kept in the loop when it comes to the taking of human life by autonomous weapons systems.[44] On October 31, 2019, the United States Department of Defense's Defense Innovation Board published the draft of a report recommending principles for the ethical use of artificial intelligence by the Department of Defense that would ensure a human operator would always be able to look into the 'black box' and understand the kill-chain process. However, a major concern is how the report will be implemented.[45]

Project Maven is a Pentagon project involving using machine learning and engineering talent to distinguish people and objects in drone videos,[46] apparently giving the government real-time battlefield command and control, and the ability to track, tag and spy on targets without human involvement. Reportedly it stops short of acting as an AI weapons system capable of firing on self-designated targets[47]. The project was established in a memo by the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense on 26 April 2017.[48] Also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross Functional Team,[49] it is, according to Lt. Gen. of the United States Air Force Jack Shanahan in November 2017, a project "designed to be that pilot project, that pathfinder, that spark that kindles the flame front of artificial intelligence across the rest of the [Defense] Department".[50] Its chief, U.S. Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor, said: "People and computers will work symbiotically to increase the ability of weapon systems to detect objects."[51] At the second Defense One Tech Summit in July 2017, Cukor also said that the investment in a "deliberate workflow process" was funded by the Department [of Defense] through its "rapid acquisition authorities" for about "the next 36 months".[52]

United Kingdom[edit]

In 2015, the UK government opposed a ban on lethal autonomous weapons, stating that "international humanitarian law already provides sufficient regulation for this area", but that all weapons employed by UK armed forces would be "under human oversight and control".[53]


Israel's Harpy anti-radar "fire and forget" drone is designed to be launched by ground troops, and autonomously fly over an area to find and destroy radar that fits pre-determined criteria.[54]

South Korea[edit]

The South Korean Super aEgis II machine gun, unveiled in 2010, sees use both in South Korea and in the Middle East. It can identify, track, and destroy a moving target at a range of 4 km. While the technology can theoretically operate without human intervention, in practice safeguards are installed to require manual input. A South Korean manufacturer states, "Our weapons don't sleep, like humans must. They can see in the dark, like humans can't. Our technology therefore plugs the gaps in human capability", and they want to "get to a place where our software can discern whether a target is friend, foe, civilian or military".[55]


According to Siemens, worldwide military spending on robotics was US$5.1 billion in 2010 and US$7.5 billion in 2015.[56][57]

China became a top player in artificial intelligence research in the 2010s. According to the Financial Times, in 2016, for the first time, China published more AI papers than the entire European Union. When restricted to number of AI papers in the top 5% of cited papers, China overtook the United States in 2016 but lagged behind the European Union.[34] 23% of the researchers presenting at the 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference were Chinese.[58] Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Alphabet, has predicted China will be the leading country in AI by 2025.[59]

AAAI presenters:[58]
Country in 2012 in 2017
US 41% 34%
China 10% 23%
UK 5% 5%

Proposals for international regulation[edit]

The international regulation of autonomous weapons is an emerging issue for international law.[60] AI arms control will likely require the institutionalization of new international norms embodied in effective technical specifications combined with active monitoring and informal diplomacy by communities of experts, together with a legal and political verification process.[61][62] As early as 2007, scholars such as AI professor Noel Sharkey have warned of "an emerging arms race among the hi-tech nations to develop autonomous submarines, fighter jets, battleships and tanks that can find their own targets and apply violent force without the involvement of meaningful human decisions".[63][64] In 2014, AI specialist Steve Omohundro warned that "An autonomous weapons arms race is already taking place".[65] Miles Brundage of the University of Oxford has argued an AI arms race might be somewhat mitigated through diplomacy: "We saw in the various historical arms races that collaboration and dialog can pay dividends".[66] Over a hundred experts signed an open letter in 2017 calling on the UN to address the issue of lethal autonomous weapons;[67][68] however, at a November 2017 session of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), diplomats could not agree even on how to define such weapons.[69] The Indian ambassador and chair of the CCW stated that agreement on rules remained a distant prospect. As of 2017, twenty-two countries have called for a full ban on lethal autonomous weapons.[70]

Many experts believe attempts to completely ban killer robots are likely to fail.[71] A 2017 report from Harvard's Belfer Center predicts that AI has the potential to be as transformative as nuclear weapons.[66][72][73] The report further argues that "Preventing expanded military use of AI is likely impossible" and that "the more modest goal of safe and effective technology management must be pursued", such as banning the attaching of an AI dead man's switch to a nuclear arsenal.[73] Part of the impracticality is that detecting treaty violations would be extremely difficult.[74][75]

Other reactions to autonomous weapons[edit]

A 2015 open letter calling for the ban of lethal automated weapons systems has been signed by tens of thousands of citizens, including scholars such as physicist Stephen Hawking, Tesla magnate Elon Musk, and Apple's Steve Wozniak.[69]

Professor Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield has warned that autonomous weapons will inevitably fall into the hands of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.[76]


Many Western tech companies are leery of being associated too closely with the U.S. military, for fear of losing access to China's market.[33] Furthermore, some researchers, such as DeepMind's Demis Hassabis, are ideologically opposed to contributing to military work.[77]

For example, in June 2018, company sources at Google said that top executive Diane Greene told staff that the company would not follow-up Project Maven after the current contract expired in March 2019.[46]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Paul Scharre, "Killer Apps: The Real Dangers of an AI Arms Race", Foreign Affairs, vol. 98, no. 3 (May/June 2019), pp. 135–44. "Today's AI technologies are powerful but unreliable. Rules-based systems cannot deal with circumstances their programmers did not anticipate. Learning systems are limited by the data on which they were trained. AI failures have already led to tragedy. Advanced autopilot features in cars, although thesddsy perform well in some circumstances, have driven cars without warning into trucks, concrete barriers, and parked cars. In the wrong situation, AI systems go from supersmart to superdumb in an instant. When an enemy is trying to manipulate and hack an AI system, the risks are even greater." (p. 140.)
  • The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. (2019). Interim Report. Washington, DC: Author.