June 29, 2021

Debunking the AI Arms Race Theory

By Paul Scharre

In 2015, a group of prominent AI and robotics researchers signed an open letter warning of the dangers of autonomous weapons. “The key question for humanity today,” they wrote, “is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable.”1 Today, many nations are working to apply AI for military advantage, and the term “AI arms race” has become a catchphrase used by both critics and proponents of AI militarization. In 2018, then-Under Secretary of Defense Michael Griffin, calling for the United States to invest more in AI, stated, “There might be an artificial intelligence arms race, but we’re not yet in it.”2 In a 2020 Wired article, Will Roper, then chief acquisition officer for the U.S. Air Force, warned of the risks of falling behind in a “digital arms race with China.”3

The so-called AI arms race has become a common feature in news headlines,4 but the arms race framing fails to match reality. While nations are clearly competing to develop and adopt AI technology for military use, the character of that competition does not meet the traditional definition of an arms race. Military AI competition nevertheless does pose risks. The widespread adoption of military AI could cause warfare to evolve in a manner that leads to less human control and to warfare becoming faster, more violent, and more challenging in terms of being able to manage escalation and bring a war to an end. Additionally, perceptions of a “race” to field AI systems before competitors do could cause nations to cut corners on testing, leading to the deployment of unsafe AI systems that are at risk of accidents that could cause unintended escalation or destruction. Even if fears of an “AI arms race” are overblown, military AI competition brings real risks to which nations should attend. There are concrete steps nations can take to mitigate some of these dangers.

The so-called AI arms race has become a common feature in news headlines,4 but the arms race framing fails to match reality.

Current Military AI Competition Is Not an “Arms Race”

As Heather Roff has written, the arms race framing “misrepresents the competition going on among countries.”5 To begin with, AI is not a weapon. AI is a general-purpose enabling technology with myriad applications. It is not like a missile or a tank. It is more like electricity, the internal combustion engine, or computer networks.6 General-purpose technologies like AI have applications across a range of industries. Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly has argued that it “will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize.”7

Nations may very well be in a technology race to adopt AI across a range of industries. AI will help to improve economic productivity and, by extension, economic and military power. During the industrial revolution, early adopters of industrial technology significantly increased their national power. From 1830 to 1890, Britain and Germany, which were both early industrializers, more than doubled their per capita gross national product while Russia, which lagged in industrialization, increased its per capita gross national product by a mere 7 percent over that 60-year period.8 These technological advantages led to increased economic and military power, most notably for Europe relative to the rest of the world. In 1790, Europe (collectively), China, and India (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh) held roughly the same shares of global manufacturing output, with Europe and India each holding about one-quarter of global manufacturing output and China holding roughly one-third. They all had approximately equivalent levels of per capita industrialization at that time. But the industrial revolution skyrocketed European economic productivity. By 1900, Europe collectively controlled 62 percent of global manufacturing output, while China held only six percent and India less than two percent. These economic advantages translated into military power. By 1914, Europeans occupied or controlled over 80 percent of the world’s land surface.9

Read the full article from Texas National Security Review.

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