Science & Hi-Tech

China military develops robotic submarines that are powered by AI

The Chinese military is developing unmanned submarines in a bid to keep up with the advancing technology of the west. The submersibles will be relatively large and low-cost and are to be fitted with AI-technology to allow it to navigate independently (file photo)
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The Chinese military is developing a fleet of new submarines that will navigate the ocean without a human crew, according to scientists involved in the project.

The submarines will be powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), allowing them to navigate independently and work alongside existing fleets. 

The crew-less submersibles will be relatively large and low-cost compared to other military watercrafts, according to scientists working on the project.

The AI submarines are rumoured to be fitted with diesel-electric engines to enable them to stay at sea for several months without returning to dock.

China will use these unmanned subs for intelligence gathering missions, planting sea mines, and ‘kamikaze’-style attacks on high-value targets, the scientists said.

These missions are scheduled to start in the early 2020s, they added.

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The Chinese military is developing unmanned submarines in a bid to keep up with the advancing technology of the west. The submersibles will be relatively large and low-cost and are to be fitted with AI-technology to allow it to navigate independently (file photo)

According to those familiar with the AI-powered submarine project, who spoke to the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity, the machines are not set to replace traditional submarines with human crews.

Researchers claim the autonomous subs will work alongside manned fleets.

The machines will purportedly be able to gather information, plant sea mines and be stationed at geographical ‘checkpoints’ to keep watch for intruding vessels.

Other potential uses for the unmanned watercrafts include being used as decoys to expose the position of an enemy fleet and, if necessary, a ‘suicide’ mission to destory a particularly high valuable target.

There will be no human operators on board the machines, however, they will be able to establish contact with ground command on a regular basis.  

The submarines will be deigned to complete missions independently, but could also be likely to assist in larger missions alongside human-navigated subs.

China has an existing programme in place, with unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) already being tested.

However, these crafts are relatively small and limited in their role.

Existing models also suffer with a relatively a small range and must be deployed and collected by another ship.

The military hopes to improve the technology powering these machines to develop larger models with diesel-electric engines capable of constant energy production for months at the time.

The next-generation will also be able to dock and deploy like their conventional predecessors, researchers claim.

Executive decisions — such a attacking an enemy vessel — will still be made by a human operator but these so-called ‘giant UUVs’ will be able to make its own decisions for day-to-day operations.

This will include navigating the ocean, changing course and depth to avoid detection, determining the difference between enemy and civilian vessels, as well as the best path to reach a destination. 

China is hoping the latest military AI developments will help the country challenge the dominance of the west, and particularly the US, in strategic waters like the South China Sea and western Pacific Ocean.

This project is a single branch of a much larger initiative from the country, which recently increased funding to its armed forces.

Beijing announced earlier this year plans to increase military budget by almost 10 per cent, raising the operating funds from $132 billion to $175 billion.

Researchers claim the autonomous submarines will work in conjunction with manned fleets. They will gather information, plant sea mines and conduct 'kamikaze' missions if necessary while working alongside existing fleets of conventional machines (file photo)

Researchers claim the autonomous submarines will work in conjunction with manned fleets. They will gather information, plant sea mines and conduct ‘kamikaze’ missions if necessary while working alongside existing fleets of conventional machines (file photo)

WHY ARE PEOPLE SO WORRIED ABOUT AI?

It is an issue troubling some of the greatest minds in the world at the moment, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk described AI as our ‘biggest existential threat’ and likened its development as ‘summoning the demon’.

He believes super intelligent machines could use humans as pets.

Professor Stephen Hawking said it is a ‘near certainty’ that a major technological disaster will threaten humanity in the next 1,000 to 10,000 years.

They could steal jobs 

More than 60 percent of people fear that robots will lead to there being fewer jobs in the next ten years, according to a 2016 YouGov survey.

And 27 percent predict that it will decrease the number of jobs ‘a lot’ with previous research suggesting admin and service sector workers will be the hardest hit.

As well as posing a threat to our jobs, other experts believe AI could ‘go rogue’ and become too complex for scientists to understand.

A quarter of the respondents predicted robots will become part of everyday life in just 11 to 20 years, with 18 percent predicting this will happen within the next decade. 

They could ‘go rogue’ 

Computer scientist Professor Michael Wooldridge said AI machines could become so intricate that engineers don’t fully understand how they work.

If experts don’t understand how AI algorithms function, they won’t be able to predict when they fail.

This means driverless cars or intelligent robots could make unpredictable ‘out of character’ decisions during critical moments, which could put people in danger.

For instance, the AI behind a driverless car could choose to swerve into pedestrians or crash into barriers instead of deciding to drive sensibly.

They could wipe out humanity 

Some people believe AI will wipe out humans completely.

‘Eventually, I think human extinction will probably occur, and technology will likely play a part in this,’ DeepMind’s Shane Legg said in a recent interview.

He singled out artificial intelligence, or AI, as the ‘number one risk for this century’.

Musk warned that AI poses more of a threat to humanity than North Korea.

‘If you’re not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea,’ the 46-year-old wrote on Twitter.

‘Nobody likes being regulated, but everything (cars, planes, food, drugs, etc) that’s a danger to the public is regulated. AI should be too.’

Musk has consistently advocated for governments and private institutions to apply regulations on AI technology.

He has argued that controls are necessary in order protect machines from advancing out of human control

Lin Yang, marine technology equipment director at the Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, confirmed the larger and more complex automated submarines are in development.

‘Yes, we are doing it,’ he told the South China Morning Post.

Mr Lin refused to be drawn into revealing the exact technical details of the project, due to the sensitive nature of the work.

‘It will be announced sooner or later, but not now,’ he added. 

The main advantage of the large AI subs is that they can be produced and operated on a large scale at a relatively low cost, sources said.

The lack of humans on baord means the crafts are more cost efficient, with no need to spend money to ensure the safety, comfort and mental health of the crew.

College of Automation in Harbin Engineering University professor Luo Yuesheng said the submarines would ramp-up the pressure and expectations on human captains who face the unmanned ships in battle.

The AI-powered submarines would be fearless – as they have nothing to lose.

The computers powering the watercrafts will be able to learn tactics for battle based on the sinking of other vessels, making them ‘a formidable opponent’ in battle, Yuesheng said. 

The AI technology necessary for these unmanned submarines still in its infancy and faces numerous challenges to pilot a craft independently.

Hardware must meet an exceptional standard as there will be no readily-available engineers on deck to fix any faults with the submarines once they are at sea.

The missions of unmanned submarines will also likely be limited to specific, relatively simple tasks, Luo said.

‘AI will not replace humans. The situation under water can get quite sophisticated. I don’t think a robot can understand or handle all the challenges,’ he added.        




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