nuclear submarines
United States Naval Institute News Blog/Wikimedia Commons

China plans to update the computer systems on its nuclear submarines to incorporate artificial intelligence in the near future.

“Though a submarine has enormous power of destruction, its brain is actually quite small,” a senior scientist noted anonymously. This sensitive project, the researcher said, would introduce new applications of AI in modern warfare.

Long periods of time in confined quarters can lead to heightened stress for a sub’s crew. This environment can result in poor judgment and impaired decision-making skills. With the inclusion of a new AI system, decisions would be less reliant on emotional stability, but the reliability of the AI technology.

Nuclear submarines have long been perceived as one of the sleekest war machines on the market. However, subs often have technology that predate commissioning. Military-grade components are often structured for durability and are predominantly manual. Machine-run “thinking” on subs is often minimal to none––usually handled almost entirely by naval personnel.

As a support to commanding officers on a sub, an AI assist system would allow for an objective decision-making system. The AI system would be powered by a convolutional neural network, mimicking human brain activity. It would pick up information from the submarine’s sensors, observation networks, or the crew itself.

In action, the AI assistant would be able to help commanding officers assess the battlefield and underwater conditions for greatest functionality. It would support officers and provide additional information, strategies and quick response time to enemy threats.

To complement the subs’ existing computer systems, the AI technology will have to be compacted to reduce the risk of failure and increase adaptability.

“What the military cares most about is not fancy features. What they care most is the thing does not screw up amid the heat of a battle,” the researcher said.

Crews would not have reduced members––rather, having human naval forces would be more important than ever. Beijing takes the project seriously and is reportedly investing many resources into the AI program.

The advancement of this AI program was highlighted by Joe Marino, CEO of Rite-Solutions, a technical company supporting the US Naval Undersea System Command.

“Combined with undersea technology advancements by near-peer competitors such as Russia and China in areas such as stealth, sensors, weapons, this ‘cognitive advantage’ could threaten US undersea dominance,” he wrote.

Marino encouraged the US to consider the application of AI technology to naval submarines.

Zhu Min, lead scientist in China’s deep water exploration program, said there was previously a gap between AI technology and application. Now, though, implementing AI on submarines could “change the game under the sea.”

Some experts voice concern over the possibility of AI technology running amok. With recent advancements in computer programs like AlphaGo, AI now has the potential to teach itself new knowledge.

To guard against a system learning its own way of thinking, Tsinghua University professor Deng Zhidong said, “An AI-powered machine is still a machine. It does not have a life.”

“You can shut it down and shift to manual any time. It will be the same on a nuclear submarine.”

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