China is Creating Unmanned Subs Controlled by Artificial Intelligence

China has been open about their push to excel in technology, which includes artificial intelligence, and apply it to various sectors of industry.  Over the weekend, it was reported that China’s military is developing unmanned, AI submarines with the expectation of being available during the 2020s.  Besides the obvious advantage China would have in strategic waters, such as in South China Sea, it is important to look at the pros and cons China, or any other nation, would have in utilizing unmanned subs that are controlled by artificial intelligence.


Establishing Naval Power Through AI Technology

According to writer Stephen Chen from the South China Morning Post, scientists involved in projects that focus on artificial intelligence say that China is creating relatively low-cost, smart and big submarines that are unmanned with the capability of roaming the oceans of the world to perform numerous missions.  These wide range of missions include placement of mines, reconnaissance and possibly suicide attacks against enemy ships.

The project stems from the ambitious plan of China’s government to increase their naval power by utilizing artificial intelligence technology.  Besides already creating the world’s biggest facility for testing surface drone boats in Zhuhai, Guangdong province.  Also, military researchers are creating a support system that is assisted through AI for commanders of submarines; the system will assist captains during the heat of combat to make more accurate and faster decisions.

The researchers said that the new unmanned subs will join other manned or autonomous military systems that are in orbit, land and water to complete coordinated efforts during a mission.  The subs that are devoid of human operators will head out to complete their missions and then return on their own to base.  While temporary contact may be established to receive periodic updates from ground command, they are designed to be capable of fulfilling assignments without intervention from humans.

Confirmation of the program was made by Lin Yang, marine technology equipment director at the Shenyang Institute of Automation and Chinese Academy of Sciences, who said it was a response to development of similar watercraft being worked on by the US.  However, AI subs have their pros and cons which needs to be addressed to decide if such unmanned AI vessels are worth developing.


Pros and Cons of AI Submarines

One main advantage to producing artificial intelligence submarines would be the relatively low cost as the majority of funds invested into these vessels in making sure the environment is survivable for humans is no longer needed.  Removing humans means that these ships can operate fearlessly without having to be focused on protecting individuals inside; instead, artificial intelligence systems can concentrate on learning what is going on around them.  Also, these unmanned subs become a major concern for enemy captains to cope with, according to professor Luo Yuesheng at the College of Automation in Harbin Engineering University.    

While these unmanned AI subs have their advantages, they have drawbacks as well, such as they need to be resilient since diagnostics and repairs normally performed by humans cannot be done.  Researchers have pointed out that there are limits to what artificial intelligence subs can accomplish, especially during the initial stages of being launched.  They will initially perform simple tasks while not replacing a human crew entirely; the final decision of whether to attack will be made by the commander.


China’s ambition of producing AI subs is a wake-up call to nations that advancements in artificial intelligence technology is ongoing and can be applied in many ways, such as in strategic waters to either defend against or to conquer.