China is set to supercharge its naval shipbuilding program with AI, accelerating production rates and potentially cementing its quantitative lead over the US.
This month, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that a research team from the China Ship Design and Research Center used AI operating on a small computer system to design a warship’s electrical systems in one day.
This task would reportedly take human designers 300 days using the most advanced computer tools, the source says. SCMP notes that the research team published their findings in the Chinese-language journal Computer Integrated Manufacturing Systems last month.
According to Luo Wei, a senior engineer with the ship design center, the AI accomplished 400 tasks with 100% accuracy, noting that although the AI showed areas for improvement, it could accelerate China’s shipbuilding program, as reported by the source.
SCMP says that the AI works by consulting a database of Chinese ship designs from past decades and then comes up with a design that is checked against the database, with this approach drastically reducing computing resources and eliminating errors.
However, the source also says that while the AI made mistakes in the design process, it does not work autonomously but rather functions with human guidance. SCMP also notes that the AI project received military funding, as the design process was the main obstacle to speeding up warship production rather than shipyard capacity.
The technology can further cement China’s shipbuilding lead over the US. Asia Times reported last month that the US could not match China’s shipbuilding output, as China has 13 naval shipyards, each with more capacity than all seven US naval shipyards combined.
China’s massive shipbuilding capacity has contributed to having the world’s largest navy at 340 ships, compared to the US at 280 as of 2022.
China has also been using AI to design weapons other than warships. Asia Times reported on March 2022 that China had developed AI that can independently design hypersonic weapons.
The Chinese researchers behind the project claimed that the AI could identify most of the shock waves produced in hypersonic wind tunnel tests making thousands of images per second that would be too tedious and costly for human researchers to analyze.
China’s AI tool for designing hypersonic weapons can assist researchers in developing new designs that can fly faster and are even more difficult to intercept than current models.
Aside from weapons, China has been applying AI technology to strategic capabilities. For example, Asia Times reported in April 2022 that China had used AI to turn commercial imaging satellites into potent spy satellites, effectively exploiting the dual-use nature of space-based imaging.
The AI upgrade to China’s low-cost civilian Jilin-1 satellite achieved a 95% precision rate compared to 14% for traditional satellite AI in analyzing small objects such as planes in the air or cars on the street.
Apart from the Jilin-1, China has also upgraded its Beijing-3 commercial imaging satellite with AI, allowing it to perform an in-depth scan of San Francisco in 42 seconds at an altitude of 500 kilometers, producing images clear enough that military vehicles on the streets and the weapons they carried could be identified.
Apart from weapons and strategic capabilities, China is using AI to assist in shaping its operational environment in the physical and cognitive domains.
This month, Asia Times reported on China’s use of AI to gain a decisive edge in the South China Sea. Its AI developed an extensive logistics network in the contested body of water. The AI developed a logistics network spanning 17 to 80 features in the region.
The 80-feature scenario cost US$2.9 billion to build new harbors, warehouses and cargo ships, and maintain regular fights between China and 20 island airports. This logistics network also enables China to send personnel and equipment to any feature within six hours after a typhoon or other contingency.
In addition to weapons and capabilities, AI plays a crucial role in China’s military strategy. This January, Asia Times reported on China’s AI-powered “smart deterrence” strategy for a Taiwan contingency.
China aims to become a leader in “intelligent warfare,” exploiting the military edge offered by technologies such as AI, cloud computing, Big Data analytics and cyber offense and defense.
This strategy assumes that the side that can outsmart the enemy without a fight will prevail, with China’s “intelligentized warfare” concept emphasizing the seizure of the information domain to deter or manage a conflict by depriving adversary access to information.
For example, in a Taiwan contingency, China uses AI to manipulate public opinion and wage psychological warfare to erode the self-governing island’s will to resist through propaganda and disinformation.
However, the increasing use and weaponization of AI may have unforeseen consequences.
Branka Marijian notes in a March 2022 article for Scientific American that the use of AI in weapons systems is immature and error-prone, as it needs to be clarified how these systems make decisions.
Moreover, Marijian notes that some AI-powered weapons will inevitably hit the wrong targets, AI can carry its creators’ biases against specific groups of people and an AI arms race between major military powers may result in the rushed deployment of such before the technology is mature.
Asia Times noted in May 2022 that this overreliance on AI could lead to “flash wars,” wherein unmanned systems from opposing sides react against each other, leading to an uncontrolled chain reaction of escalation.
Flash war triggers, such as unavoidable incidents and accidents due to the fog of war including friendly fire, civilian casualties and bad military judgment, can spark an escalation that can reach catastrophic proportions before humans can intervene.
Despite that, states have been reluctant to enact norms governing the use of AI as they are unwilling to relinquish any absolute gain and military advantage given by the technology.