Russia's sudden change of heart on AI

Russia's sudden change of heart on AI
© YURI KOCHETKOV/AFP/Getty Images

In a widely reported speech to a group of students on Sept. 1, 2017, “Knowledge Day” that marks the first day of the Russian school year, Vladimir Putin asserted that “the future belongs to artificial intelligence” and added that “whoever leads in AI will rule the world.” With those words, Putin launched what he meant to be a major Russian effort to develop and exploit artificial intelligence systems, most notably for military use.

Indeed, within a year, Russian SU-35 fighter aircraft reportedly were being equipped with an autonomous targeting device; Moscow plans to install far more AI-based systems in its next generation MiG-41 fighter. Russia is also testing autonomous unmanned land and naval systems.

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As it has pressed ahead with research into AI, with a heavy defense-oriented focus, Russia has blocked international efforts to impose any constraints on AI development. Just two months after Putin’s speech, Russia effectively stonewalled a United Nations effort to develop global guidelines to regulate the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems. Moscow recognized that any guidelines might stall its effort to realize Putin’s objective.

Twenty months later, however, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian National Council, appeared to reverse course. In remarks on April 25 to the annual Moscow Conference on International Security, Patrushev compared AI-driven weapons to “weapons of mass destruction,” many of which have been subject to bilateral and multilateral international treaties. Patrushev did not commit to supporting any specific set of proposals to regulate militarized AI. Nevertheless, he was quite clear about the need “to activate the global community, chiefly at the U.N. venue, as quickly as possible to develop a comprehensive regulatory framework that would prevent the use of the[se] … technologies for undermining national and international security.”

Patrushev could not possibly have spoken in this manner without Putin’s explicit approval. What, then, has led Putin and his advisors apparently to reverse course on AI development, to which Putin publicly and repeatedly has committed himself?   

To begin with, Russia simply does not have the funding, either in its public or private sectors, to pursue anything like the level of AI research and development comparable to the United States, its perceived primary rival, or to China. Russia currently spends something less than $15 million on AI; it plans to increase that level to $500 million by 2020. These sums represent private-sector spending, whose products the Russian military intends to harness.

In contrast, the Department of Defense alone expects to spend about nine times as much on its own AI-related activities in fiscal year 2020. Its projects include funding for the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) and Project Maven for Advanced Image Recognition for a total of $927 million, and an additional $3.7 billion on unmanned undersea and surface systems and autonomous logistics platforms. The commercial sector is spending considerably more: approximately $9.3 billion in 2018, with over $5 billion invested in AI-focused companies. China likewise far outspent Russia in developing artificial intelligence-based systems; it committed $12 billion in 2017 and expects to reach over five times that level by 2020.

Put simply, the Russians once again have found that they cannot seriously compete with the United States (or with China) in an AI arms race, any more than the Soviet Union was able to compete with the West two decades ago. Russia’s only recourse, as it was during the Cold War, is to reach some agreement that slows western AI-based weapons development, especially in areas where Moscow’s military-industrial complex is furthest behind its competitors.

Thus, Russia likely would resist any effort to hamper its current AI projects for its new aircraft, unmanned underwater systems, unmanned ground vehicles and possibly AI powered missiles. Other Russian projects that are in their earliest development stages, but whose American and/or Chinese equivalents are closer to being fielded, would be likely targets for Russian-supported U.N. restrictive guidelines.

Russia may well have other reasons to pursue some control over AI in a United Nations context. It would offer Moscow yet another vehicle for demonstrating its role as a revived major power on the international scene, seemingly on a par with Washington and Beijing. In addition, Russia could press for guidelines to which America would likely adhere but, as has been the case with respect to the INF Treaty, Moscow would circumvent or clandestinely violate.

Should Russia follow through on Patrushev’s seeming about-face on AI guidelines, it certainly would not be as a result of Russia’s sudden recognition of the importance of international arms regulation. Instead, it simply would be a result of a Russian recalculation of its national security interests. Given its record in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, it remains safe to assert that international good citizenship is not among Moscow’s primary, secondary or even tertiary objectives.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.