China Is Building AI-Powered Submarines

August 22, 2018 - 5 minutes read

Who said all the hot artificial intelligence (AI) innovation is being developed in San Francisco and other U.S. tech hubs? China has built AI-powered submarines — and plans to launch them in hotly-contested surrounding seas by 2020.

Many Questions, Few Answers

Many of the details surrounding these submarines are shrouded in secrecy. Per the South China Morning Post (SCMP), they’ll be capable of carrying out “[…] a wide range of missions, from reconnaissance to mine placement to even suicide attacks against enemy vessels.” To allay concerns, one unnamed scientist also told the SCMP that they “will not be nuclear-armed.”

For now, it’s known that the AI systems will be used to make decisions about the submarine’s trajectory, mainly helping with identifying other entities and avoiding detection. Whether or not the AI will seek human input or be completely autonomous is still not understood yet.

It’s likely that these subs will be deployed in the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, both of which are the subjects of intense controversy. Neighboring countries like Vietnam and Japan strongly disagree with China about who has the rights to these areas rich with resources. Recently, China has created artificial islands in these regions to be utilized as military bases. So it’s no surprise that this submarine news could escalate this into a serious situation.

Not the Only Sea Vessel With Smarts

We’d be remiss to leave out the fact that China’s not the only country interested in autonomous aquatic vessels. Lin Yang, the marine technology equipment director at the Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, stated that China undertook this endeavor in response to similar projects by the U.S.

Earlier in 2018, DARPA, the DoD’s research arm, gave the U.S. Navy the ASWACTUW (Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel) experimental craft. Also called the “Sea Hunter,” this autonomous vessel will be able to handle three-month-long missions alone once it’s completed.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), the U.S. is also hard at work with major defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing to develop two other autonomous submarine systems by 2020.

The Advent of AI Warfare?

As if there wasn’t enough hot debate surrounding the topic of AI-fueled warfare, this recent news raises a plethora of questions. Will these submarines be able to attack on their own? What happens if they go rogue or are compromised by a hacker?

Jim Mattis, the current U.S. Secretary of Defense, shines some insight on the trouble of involving AI in warfare: “If we ever get to the point where it is completely on automatic pilot, we are all spectators. That is no longer serving a political purpose. And conflict is a social problem that needs social solutions, people—human solutions.”

Many AI developers, researchers, and thought leaders echo the same sentiment. A recent open letter signed by thousands was sent to the U.N. it asked for a ban on AI-enhanced weaponry:

“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

How do you think this situation should be handled? How can we successfully regulate AI? This technology represents the potential for a greater future for humanity. But if left unchecked in the wrong hands, that future may not be as bright as we once thought.

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