Nobody designing a financial system today would invent credit cards. The Western world uses credit cards because replacing legacy systems is expensive. China doesn't use credit cards. They skipped straight from cash to WeChat Pay. Skipping straight to the newest technology when you're playing catch-up is called leapfrogging.
A world-class military takes decades to create. The United States' oldest active aircraft carrier was commissioned in 1975. For reference, the Microsoft Windows operating system was released in 1985. The backbone of NATO's armed forces was designed for a world before autonomous drones and machine learning.
The United States dominates at modern warfare. Developed in WWII, modern warfare combines tanks, aircraft, artillery and mechanized infantry to advance faster than the enemy can coordinate a response.
Modern warfare is expensive—and not just because of all that heavy machinery. Modern warfare delegates important decisions to the smallest unit capable of making them. Officers must be smart and they must be trained. Training officers to fight a modern war is hard. It takes a long time. There's constant turnover. It's a human resources nightmare. You can't just throw money at the problem.
Soon it will be possible to throw machine learning at the problem instead.
At the center of [China's] public discussions is a new and little-understood concept called “intelligentization (智能化),” which represents a new goal for the PLA’s progress in modernization…. Chinese theorists’ discussions about intelligentization overwhelmingly call for highly centralized decision-making structures. These strategists want operational commanders advised by advanced algorithms to perfectly direct intelligent swarms of autonomous battle systems to achieve campaign objectives. Chinese theorists believe this approach will consolidate command responsibility onto a few generals who can remain safely away from the frontlines of the battlefield, which is antithetical to the modern concept of mission command.
AI-centric postmodern warfare has advantages over human-centric modern warfare.
- Human communication is a bottleneck for large organizations. Computer command systems can coordinate perfectly and instantly. Human beings cannot.
- It's easier to mass-produce computers than human specialists.
- AI-centric warfare is on the winning side of a ratchet. AI capabilities advance while human capabilities remain constrained by biology. Whenever an AI system gets better than human beings at a specific task it remains that way permanently.
Most importantly, AI-centric command is the only viable method for commanding swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are smaller and cheaper than piloted aircraft. A UAV can be remote controlled or it can be autonomous. Remote controlling a UAV takes a lot of bandwidth because the UAV must send back its sensory information to mission command. This works fine when you're controlling a handful of Predator drones. Remote control will not work when you're controlling a swarm of 10,000 small UAVs against a peer adversary. Direct communication is fragile and there isn't enough bandwidth in the radio spectrum for indirect transmission. UAVs swarms must be autonomous.
The disadvantage of postmodern warfare is that centralized computer-controlled systems are fragile in a different way. If critical systems get compromised (or just fail in an unexpected way) then the entire war machine breaks. I think the advantages are worth the risks. It's not like our critical infrastructure isn't already vulnerable to cyberattack. Moreover, distributed fault-tolerant architectures can help mitigate the risks.
Western military theorists claim that today's autonomous systems are not ready to command the battlefield. This is true but it's also beside the point. China is building its military with forward compatability in mind. Software advances faster than hardware. By investing in autonomous battle systems today, China can continuously update to the newest AI as machine learning advances.