Artificial Intelligence giving weapons greater autonomy
- By George Leopold
- Feb 09, 2017
Chinese researchers are making great strides toward advancing artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies that could eventually be incorporated into semiautonomous weapons like anti-ship cruise missiles, observers predict.
Chinese companies such as Internet giant Baidu have been making steady progress on AI research, challenging American rivals such as Google and Microsoft. Some Chinese researchers working with U.S. companies have chosen to return home to work on indigenous research projects.
Alarms were raised last year when the state-run China Daily reported that AI technologies were being incorporated into a new generation of anti-ship missiles that would give these weapons new autonomous targeting capabilities.
Those efforts are thought to be a response to the Navy's Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM, scheduled to be deployed as early as next year to counter aggressive Chinese military moves in the South China Sea. LRASM is believed to have semiautonomous capabilities that use AI technology to counter electronic defenses
and reach designated targets without the use of standard navigation aids.
Prime contractor Lockheed Martin reported recently that a third LRASM test demonstrated the ability to load mission data before flying a pre-planned flight profile to a "pre-determined endpoint." The company said the test addressed the Navy's requirement for a "new anti-surface warfare capabilities as part of the 'distributed lethality' concept."
The approaching deployment of LRASM and a possible Chinese response based on emerging AI technology has advanced the debate about what level of autonomy should be incorporated into next generation weapons. For now, AI capabilities for "intelligent" cruise missiles appear to be restricted to evading electronic countermeasures and other threats, navigating independent of the Global Positioning System and bypassing enemy ships not on target lists.
"Notwithstanding its considerable computing and processing capabilities, however, the LRASM does not select its target in flight," noted Abhijit Singh, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. "Human operators feed that information into the missile, providing it with a continuous stream of data."
While recent Chinese reports did not specify the level of autonomy to be incorporated into "tailor made cruise missiles," state-run media reported that Chinese aerospace companies were aiming to develop tactical missiles with sufficient intelligence to seek out targets, Singh noted in a September 2016 blog post.
Singh and others stressed AI technologies could grow in importance in the age of hypersonic weapons requiring split-second targeting decisions. The U.S. and Russian have been testing
hypersonic weapons for several years, with U.S. aerospace companies lobbying DoD to develop a new hypersonic spy plane.
Meanwhile, Russia is developing a hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile dubbed Zircon. The hypersonic missile is reportedly scheduled to enter production in 2018. None of the U.S. platforms being tested appears to be close to production.
China, too, has been conducting tests, raising questions about whether it might attempt to integrate its growing AI prowess into future hypersonic weapons. According to Singh, "It is amply clear that future combat missions will require a human-machine interface on an unprecedented scale."
Singh added that several other Asian countries are developing hypersonic weapons, but none has so far proposed the use of artificial intelligence.