China uses non-human, non-physical commander in military drills

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The world may still be grappling with the ethical dilemmas surrounding AI in warfare, but Chinese scientists have taken a significant leap forward. They claim to have developed an AI commander, the highest-level role ever assigned to an AI in military research. Currently, this “virtual commander” is already taking part in war games at the Joint Operations College of the National Defense University. 

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This AI commander is learning to mimic the thought processes of a real human military leader. It’s been granted “unprecedented supreme command authority” in large-scale computer simulations at the university in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.

In contrast, the US Army employs AI as a “commander’s virtual staff” to provide decision support, while human commanders retain the final say. Even as the US develops AI-piloted fighter jets to participate in wars and training missions, ultimate decisions in the war room still rest firmly in human hands. 

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‘The Party commands the gun’

In May 2024, the Chinese-language journal Common Control & Simulation unveiled the Virtual Commander. This peer-reviewed study asserts that in China, the supremacy of the Party is unchallenged, encapsulated by the phrase, “The Party Commands the Gun.” The AI-powered Virtual Commander is designed to replace human commanders in simulated wargames, operating autonomously within the lab without human intervention. 

Leading this development, senior engineer Jia Chenxing and his team argue that as China prepares for potential conflicts in Taiwan and the South China Sea, these simulations will offer valuable insights into real-life scenarios. The scientists emphasize the importance of these simulations to “weigh the good with the bad and gain insight into the chaos of battle,” as they meticulously test their plans. 

Photo credit: Xinhua

During these simulations, military commanders are often required to make rapid decisions under unexpected circumstances. The researchers note that the current joint operations simulation system suffers from “poor simulation experiment results due to the lack of command entities at the joint battle level.” This gap is precisely where the Virtual Commander steps in to fill the void.

Various avatars

The Virtual Commander, equipped with various avatars, emulates the combat styles of different senior PLA commanders. Take General Peng Dehuai, for instance. He is known for his aggressive tactics and willingness to take risks to secure victory. During the Korean War, he caused significant disruptions to U.S. forces with his swift and unexpected strikes. On the other hand, General Lin Biao, renowned for his victories over the Japanese and Kuomintang armies, commanded with a very different style. He preferred meticulous decision-making over taking risks.

Photo credit: CNN

According to Jia’s team, the AI commander’s initial setting is designed to mirror that of a seasoned and brilliant strategist. It possesses sound mental faculties, a poised and steadfast character, and can analyze and judge situations calmly. It avoids emotional or impulsive decisions and quickly devises practical plans by recalling similar decision-making scenarios from memory. The outline of the Virtual Commander can be adjusted as needed. The team also highlights that while autonomous fighting units like drones and robotic dogs may gain more freedom of movement in the future, the ultimate command will always remain in human hands. 

Researchers intentionally constrained the AI commander’s knowledge base to mimic the challenges human commanders encounter. When the system’s memory becomes full, it erases some prior information. During military war games where humans are excluded from the decision-making process, the AI has successfully identified emerging threats and crafted innovative strategies to counteract adversaries.

A strategic actor

Photo credit: Global Times

AI is becoming increasingly significant in future warfare, with military AI systems outperforming humans in processing vast amounts of data. This integration of humans and machines is poised to act as a major force multiplier for existing armaments, and AI is predicted to become a “de facto strategic actor” in planning, tactics, and combat. Already, AI technologies assist in high-stakes decision-making. There are ongoing debates within the military community about the potential for AI to take control over nuclear arsenals.

In May of this year, an AI-piloted USAF F-16, with USAF Secretary Frank Kendall on board, went head-to-head with a human-piloted fighter jet. This event marked a monumental leap in military aviation, comparable to the advent of stealth technology. 

This groundbreaking aircraft was among the first AI-controlled jets. The AI software trains using millions of data points in simulators and then tests its hypotheses in actual flights. Real-world performance data is fed back into the simulator for the AI to process, enhancing its learning.

Photo credit: Twitter

Questions arise

In 2023, the first AI-controlled aircraft dogfight took place. Since then, numerous dogfights have occurred, significantly enhancing the AI’s capabilities. Some versions of the Vista AI system are now on par with, if not superior to, human pilots in air combat. 

While China also employs AI, there is no evidence that it has conducted tests beyond simulation environments. The introduction of the Virtual Commander raises questions that militaries worldwide are currently struggling with. Concerns persist about granting AI the autonomy to deploy lethal weapons without adequate human oversight. Humanitarian groups continue to push for stricter regulations on the use of AI in warfare.


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