The Ziyan Blowfish A2, machine-gun armed autonomous drone.

The Ziyan Blowfish A2, machine-gun armed autonomous drone. ZIYAN

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For the first time, a senior Defense official has called out Beijing for selling lethal autonomy.

China is exporting drones that it advertises as having lethal autonomy to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday. It’s the first time that a senior Defense official has acknowledged that China is selling drones capable of taking life with little or no human oversight.

“As we speak, the Chinese government is already exporting some of its most advanced military aerial drones to the Middle East, as it prepares to export its next-generation stealth UAVs when those come oneline,” Esper said today at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence conference. “In addition, Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling drones advertised as capable of full autonomy, including the ability to conduct lethal targeted strikes.” 

The Chinese company Ziyan, for instance, markets the Blowfish A3, essentially a helicopter drone outfitted with a machine gun. Ziyan says it “autonomously performs more complex combat missions, including fixed-point timing detection, fixed-range reconnaissance, and targeted precision strikes.”

As Greg Allen, chief of strategy and communications at the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, points out in this February paper for CNAS, Ziyan is negotiating to sell its Blowfish A2 to the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. “Despite expressing concern on AI arms races, most of China’s leadership sees increased military usage of AI as inevitable and is aggressively pursuing it. China already exports armed autonomous platforms and surveillance AI, ” Allen wrote.

Last year, Zeng Yi, a senior executive at NORINCO, China’s third-largest defense company, forecast that, “In future battlegrounds, there will be no people fighting” —as early as 2025.

Esper also said Chinese surveillance software and hardware networks could help China develop AI. “All signs point to the construction of a 21st-century surveillance state designed to censor speech and deny basic human rights on an unprecedented scale. Look no further than its use of surveillance to systematically repress more than a million Muslim Uighurs,” he said. “Beijing has all the power and tools it needs to coerce Chinese industry and academia into supporting its government-led efforts.” 

Last week, the Defense Innovation Board put forward a list of AI principles for the U.S. military, which listed human governability as key, in line with previous policy going back to 2012. Esper called the list comprehensive and applauded it.

He said it was “equally troubling are the outside firms or multinational corporations that are inadvertently or tacitly providing the technology or research behind China’s unethical use of AI.”

One company that has received criticism recently for partnering with Chinese researchers is Google. n Tuesday, Kent Walker, the company’s Senior Vice President for Global Affairs told the crowd at the forum, “We have chosen to scope our operations there very carefully.” Walker added that the partnerships are limited to advertising and work that to support open-source coding initiatives.