Robotics & Geopolitics: AI Could Shake Up the South China Sea

The South China Sea near Thailand. Source:

November 30, 2018      

From deep-sea exploration and cybersecurity to international investment, artificial intelligence has become a key part of geopolitical competition. This week, we look at how an unmanned station could bolster China’s claims in the South China Sea and an Indian initiative to use AI to improve its cyber defenses.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with Abishur Prakash at Center for Innovating the Future to provide its readers with cutting-edge insights into recent developments in international robotics, AI, and unmanned systems. Are you ready to be updated?

China turns to AI for deep sea station

Robotics development: The Chinese government is planning to build the world’s first “artificial intelligence colony” in the South China Sea.

The base will be located in the deepest part of the ocean, known as the “Hadal zone,” and it will serve as a deep sea observation post for scientific and military purposes. The undersea station will be operated almost entirely by AI and robots. The whole project is expected to cost $160 million.

Geopolitical significance: As multiple nations grapple over territorial rights and sovereignty in the South China Sea, China has been building oil rigs and cordoning off areas with naval vessels. The country is now extending its efforts to the bottom of the ocean.

In other words, AI could help Beijing control the contested waters in a new way. One of the goals of the AI-run station is to have robotic submarines explore for mineral deposits and other resources.

Beijing believes there is $60 trillion worth of natural gas and oil in the South China Sea. (U.S. projections are more conservative at $3 trillion to $8 trillion.) There are big challenges ahead for materials science and developing systems to work at extreme depths and geologically active zones, but robots and AI could help China exploit the area ahead of other countries.

Military automation could benefit from tensions in the South China Sea.

Disputes in the South China Sea present an opportunity for AI and military robotics.

In addition, the AI colony could serve as a communications hub for Chinese unmanned and military vessels. The country has already created the Wanshan Marine Test Field, a 225-square-kilometer testing center in the South China Sea for testing unmanned ships.

Beneath the surface, China is working on an “Underwater Great Wall” that would use autonomous drones and advanced sensors to track vessels.

Just as the International Space Station (ISS) is a multinational effort, China could invite other nations to join its AI colony. In the case of the ISS, countries sent humans into space for science, following U.S. leadership.

With China’s deep-sea station, partners could send systems such as AI avatars, which Australia recently announced it is planning to create.

India could use cybersecurity to reorient South Asia

Robotics development: India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has established an “expert committee” to explore which AI technologies could work best to reduce cyberattacks.

Geopolitical significance: As India explores ways for AI to bolster cybersecurity, it isn’t alone. Last month, Taiwan said it would begin to share information with private companies so they could train AI to predict and protect against future cyberattacks. Taipei wants to defend itself from millions of attacks originating from China.

For India, the threat from China and Pakistan may also be a motivating factor. An estimated 35% of all cyberattacks on Indian websites come from China, and India’s home secretary has warned that the country does not have the ability to handle cyberattacks.

Equally important is the failure of international talks on cybersecurity last year. At the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), divisions among the U.S., China, and Russia caused all discussions to bear little fruit. This pushed India to develop its own standards in cyber norms and other areas.

India’s focus on AI may naturally flow from this lack of international collaboration. If India can develop AI that protects its businesses, critical infrastructure, and media outlets from cyberattacks, could it share this expertise to grow its geopolitical influence?

For example, the recent political shakeup in Sri Lanka has given rise to more pro-China politics, a negative for India. In response, India could offer its neighbors a cybersecurity shield. This would connect them in a new way and allow New Delhi to compete with China (and other countries) through AI, not loans or infrastructure. Through AI, India could affect the balance of power in South Asia.

U.S. could follow China’s model to protect AI, robotics

Robotics development: The U.S. Department of Commerce is considering export controls on emerging technologies that are core to U.S. national security. These technologies include robotics and AI. This proposal has emerged as trade tensions between the Washington and Beijing ramp up.

Geopolitical significance: With China getting a lot of attention for innovations like the “first AI news anchor,” it’s easy to conclude that China has already overtaken the U.S. as the world leader in machine learning applications.

But this isn’t true, and both Beijing and Washington know it. Arguably, export controls on AI and other technologies are the trump card for the U.S. They would give the federal government power to protect American innovations.

But more importantly, export controls could signify that U.S. government and business are linked in a way that has been more typically been seen, ironically, in countries such as China. If Washington goes down this path, it could start adopting China’s model for promoting competitiveness.

For example, Chinese automaker GAC Motor is planning to sell vehicles in the U.S. next year. Under current laws, there are few restrictions to such sales. But when U.S. automakers like General Motors (whose recent cutbacks have been criticized by the White House) want to sell into China, they have to deal with policies like forced technology transfer and joint initiatives.

Could the U.S. government retaliate by forcing Chinese companies to share their intellectual property or find American corporate partners?

The U.S. could do the same with AI chips, such as those from Horizon Robotics, which recently raised $1 billion. This could cause real complications for domestic corporations.

For example, IBM has invested in Horizon Robotics. Further trade restrictions might dampen multinational investments — or stop them altogether, hurting startups and established companies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

At the same time, U.S. politicians may not want to follow China’s model because a command economy is the opposite of free-market capitalism and could stifle innovation.

Regardless, one thing will fundamentally change: Until now, U.S. firms have been dependent on Chinese investment and markets. In the coming years, as Chinese firms grow, they will become dependent on the U.S. At this point, the U.S. could gain more power over China. It’s is up to American government and business to figure out how to use this power.