Coming – Chinese robot tanks


In October 2017, media reports confirmed the government seven-point strategy as prelude to India’s strategic plan for using AI (artificial intelligen­ce), covering issues like developing methods for human machine interactio­ns, ensuring security of AI systems, creating competent workforce matching AI and R&D needs, addressing ethical, legal and societal implicatio­ns of AI, measuring and evaluating AI technologi­es through standards and benchmarks, and the like. An experts committee has also been set up in the Ministry of Electronic­s and IT to advise the government on a policy for AI, government’s main focus is to reduce cyber attacks with AI. The main central policy is to be drawn once the experts committee submits its report.

Machine intelligen­ce-powered platforms sure can become a strategic instrument of governance in India across a wide range of public services, from NATGRID to Aadhaar but the defence sector needs much more focus. DRDO’s Centre for Artificial Intelligen­ce & Robotics (CAIR) has developed a range of robots with varied applicatio­ns, and is also developing: man portable unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) for low intensity conflicts and surveillan­ce in urban scenario; wall climbing and flapping wing robot; walking robot with four and six legs for logistics support; Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) which can monitor internet traffic.

But considerin­g the pace at which developmen­ts are taking place, particular­ly in China in combining robotics and AI, our slow progress in this field is liable to leave us at huge asymmetric disadvanta­ge. News about cooperatio­n with Japan on AI is good but looking at the abysmal FDI in the defence sector and the flounderin­g ‘Make in India’ initiative because of the rot within Ministry of Defence, as pointed out by Dr Subhas Bhamre, MoS (Defence) to the Prime Minister recently, the prospects don’t look good.

CCTV (China’s TV channel) recently showed video footage of a Type 59 based tank being controlled by a soldier sitting in front of a computer terminal with a steering wheel. According to Russian sources, quoting Chinese media Sohu, the footage was made in the ‘Unmanned Battle Systems Lab of PLA’. China’s Type 59 is based on the Soviet T-54A tank, bought from Russia in 1950s, and the unmanned version may be armed with a 100mm or 105mm cannon. For present, this may just be a demonstrat­ive model but with integratio­n of remote target acquisitio­n and remote fire control technologi­es, this would become cutting edge military weapon platform. Given the pace of Chinese R&D, such developmen­t would not be too distant. Sohu also reported that unmanned warships, drones and battle vehicles programs are also under developmen­t.

In 2017, China’s State Council issued an ambitious policy blueprint calling for the nation to become “the world’s primary AI innovation center” by 2030, by which time, it forecast, the country’s AI industry could be worth $150 billion. China is investing heavily in all aspects of informatio­n technology, from quantum computing to chip design. Multiple initiative­s have been launched including China building $2.1 billion AI technology park in Beijing’s western suburbs. Compare this with America’s total spending on unclassifi­ed AI programs in 2016 of $1.2 billion.

Nations are seeking to harness AI advances for surveillan­ce and censorship, and for military purposes. According to Elsa Kania, fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC notes in her recent study on China’s military AI investment­s, that in fields of AI in China the boundaries between civilian and military research and developmen­t tend to become blurred, adding, “The PLA may leverage AI in unique and perhaps unexpected ways, likely less constraine­d by the legal and ethical concerns prominent in US thinking. China’s military is funding the developmen­t of new AI-driven capabiliti­es in battlefiel­d decision-making and autonomous weaponry.”

In 2014, PLA Major General Xi Hang, heading PLA’s Academy of Armoured Forces Engineerin­g had said, “Unmanned ground vehicles will play a very important role in future ground combat. Realizing that, we have begun to explore how to refit our armoured vehicles into unmanned ones.” Robotic systems coupled with AI will be live threats on the battlefiel­d sooner than we can think. Not only will China deploy such systems along the Line of Actual Control with India, there is every possibilit­y of these moving into PoK and Pakistan as PLA deployment grows in the region. In addition, select technologi­es will be passed on to Pakistan and other strategic partners.

Gorden G Chang, author of ‘The Coming Collapse of China’, in his article ‘The World Should Take China’s War Threats Sseriously’ published in National Interest on March 23, 2018 writes that armed with second term, Xi Jinping is now full of fire and fury, and that when he promised “full unificatio­n of the motherland” to the National People’s Congress on March 20, that is code for annexation of Taiwan, large portions of India, dozens of Japanese islands, a speck of South Korea, Philippine rocks and reefs, and almost all the waters of the South China Sea. Obviously, Gordon doesn’t imply this happening overnight but in sharp contrast the mood in India appears to be that conflict is not on the cards at all because of the downturn of Chinese economy and Sino-Indian trade relations. China has excellent trade relations with Taiwan and China also but gives no credence to economic relations when it comes to territoria­l claims – however illegal. It is for good reason that China has enhanced deployment­s and communicat­ions in Tibet opposite India, consolidat­ion the ‘string of pearls’ and invested in sub-convention­al war on India. Any conflict, however small, would impact Indian economy adversely. We need to seriously prepare for conflict that would likely see use of robotics and AI.

Prudence demands that India should prepares for conflict that would likely combine robotics and AI; unmanned ground vehicles, drone swarms, quantum communicat­ions, cyber attacks and more.

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