A top-level scientist just confirmed that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is currently building artificial intelligence–powered nuclear submarines that can think for themselves, according to the South China Morning Post.
According to the scientist, who requested their name be withheld because of the “project’s sensitivity,” told the South China Morning Post that China is in the process of upgrading the legacy computer systems of its older submarine fleets with deep learning algorithms to enhance the thinking skills of commanding officers.
The researcher said incorporating a submarine with AI-augmented brainpower will give China’s navy an advantage during wartime environments and push the technology further than it has ever been before.
“Though a submarine has enormous power of destruction, its brain is actually quite small,” the researcher stated.
The researcher says the AI decision-support system with “its own thoughts” would reduce the emotional decision making by commanding officers’ who often come under the severe stress which could affect critical decision making.
While a nuclear submarine depends on the skill, experience and efficiency of its crew to operate effectively, the demands of modern warfare could introduce variables that would cause even the smoothest-run operation to come unglued.
For instance, if the 100 to 300 people in the sub’s crew were forced to remain together in their canister in deep, dark water for months, the rising stress level could affect the commanding officers’ decision-making powers, even leading to bad judgment.
China is embarking into a new era where AI will have a prominent role in the decision making for nuclear submarines during operational usage.
South China Morning Post says the subs’ computer brains are extremely outdated and have never really been upgraded with modern technologies.
First, the technology in most submarine computers tends to predate the vessel’s commissioning. Furthermore, military-grade electronic components have required extensive battle-hardening to withstand shocks, heat or electromagnetic disturbance, sacrificing speed for reliability.
Up till now, the “thinking” function on a nuclear sub, including interpreting and answering signals picked up by sonar, a system for detecting objects under water by emitting sound pulses, has been handled almost exclusively by human naval personnel, not by machines.
The researcher said the AI-infused system must produce basic demands but also be “compact and compatible” with the submarine’s existing computer infrastructure.
“It is like putting an elephant into a shoebox,” the researcher told the South China Morning Post.
“What the military cares most about is not fancy features. What they care most is the thing does not screw up amid the heat of a battle,” he added.
Zhu Min, the lead scientist in China’s deep-water exploration program and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Acoustics, said China is currently undergoing a modernization of its military through weaponizing systems with AI technologies.
Min warns there need to be systems that safeguard from a “runaway submarine with enough nuclear arsenals to destroy a continent.”
“This is definitely a risk the authorities should consider when introducing AI to a sub,” he added.
South China Morning Post describes how the AI system would work on a nuclear submarine:
Now, through AI technology, a convolutional neural network undergirds so-called machine learning. This structure underpins a decision support system that can acquire knowledge, improve skills and develop new strategy without human intervention.
By mimicking the workings of the human brain, the system can process a large amount of data. On a nuclear submarine, data could come from the Chinese navy’s rapidly increasing observation networks, the submarine’s own sensors or daily interactions with the crew.
An AI assistant could support commanding officers by assessing the battlefield environment, providing insight into how levels of saline in the ocean and water temperature might affect the accuracy of sonar systems. It also could recognize and flag threats from an enemy faster and more accurately than human operators.
An AI assist also could help commanding officers estimate the risks and benefits of certain combat maneuvers, even suggesting moves not considered by the vessel’s captain.
However, Deng Zhidong, a computer science professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, told the South China Morning Post that he doesn’t think the nuclear submarines infused with AI technologies could ever become self-aware and adds, “an AI-powered machine is still a machine. It does not have a life,” he said. “You can shut it down and shift to manual anytime. It will be the same on a nuclear submarine.”
As the world marches towards the next military conflict, which will most certainly be fought by machines, China is making the last needed preparations through AI-infused systems on critical military assets, such as nuclear powered submarines to take the human emotion out of war. The one question we ask: What piece of military hardware will China infuse an AI system on next?