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Russia Is Systematically Copying U.S. Military AI Robotics

In Russia’s topdown system, the military and corporations are essentially part of the same enterprise

This week’s podcast, “AI development in Russia,” is Part 2 of a podcast featuring Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks in discussion with Samuel Bendett about Russia’s intended military uses of AI. Bendett is an advisor to the Russia Studies Program and the Center for Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence of the CNA Adversary Analysis Group.

Last week, Marks and Bendett discussed Russia’s advances in facial recognition techniques for the surveillance of civilians. In the background was Vladimir Putin’s famous 2017 pronouncement in 2017, “Artificial intelligence is the future not only of Russia but of all of mankind… Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

What are the military implications?

From the transcript: (Show Notes, Resources, and a link to the complete transcript follow.)

Marks began by asking, how does Russia understand the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the military?

Samuel Bendett (pictured): The Russian military defines AI as the ability to make decisions in conditions of uncertainty, the way a human is supposed to. And so Russian military has been developing its AI development ecosystem for a number of years as well… The Russian military wants to use artificial intelligence at this point in time as a decision-making tool. A lot of discussions, a lot of announcements about the Russian military’s use of AI in weapons basically comes down to this particular AI in a particular weapon, collecting all of the available data on potential targets, presenting solutions to address these targets so that a human can make a final decision. For the Russian military, AI today is a human in the loop approach, but again, it is a decision-making tool and that is what has been discussed publicly by various military organizations and institutions in Russia.

Note: The term Bendett uses, “human in the loop,” refers to an approach to artificial intelligence in which a human makes the final decision because artificial intelligence (AI) doesn’t do some ways of thinking and, hype aside, no clear way has been proposed to enable AI to do them. Jonathan Bartlett offers a clear explanation here. Also, apart from science fiction, AI will not evolve into a superintelligence all by itself.

The conversation quickly turned to talk of Russia’s reputation for the artful production of deepfakes:

Robert J. Marks: In the media in the United States, we hear all this news about Russia doing deep fake postings of generating fake emails and postings that are generated automatically by AI. What’s your opinion about this? Is there a modicum of truth in this that you know about?

Samuel Bendett: Well, in the spring of 2018 Russian Ministry of Defense, the MOD hosted a conference with the Russian Academy of Sciences and several other government institutions in order to kind of understand what is the level of AI development in the country, and what is the level of AI development internationally. And so this conference brought together a lot of academia, researchers and developers, a lot of government officials and military officials. And at that conference, one of the Russian MOD officials said that AI will help us in cyberspace and help us win info wars, information operations. He didn’t elaborate, but he did indicate that AI is going to be an essential element in this type of competition.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. So there is at least indication of a modicum of truth?

Samuel Bendett: Absolutely there is.

Note: Russian deepfakes can be quite elaborate. For example, we learn, “Russia’s most notorious troll farm reportedly used deepfakes to push a fake news outlet on Facebook … According to Facebook, the network was linked to Russia’s most notorious troll farm: the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The company says the network primarily sought to amplify a purportedly independent left-wing news site called PeaceData that was run by fake editors.” (The NextWeb, September 2, 2020) It’s covered by the Gerasimov Doctrine of warfare, by which non-military as well as military means are used to gain the upper hand.

Here’s an example of what can be done with deepfakes:

Marks and Bendett went on to discuss Russia’s explicitly military plans, principally around the Advanced Research Foundation:

Samuel Bendett: It was officially inaugurated in 2012 and launched in 2013, has a similar mission to the American DARPA to develop breakthrough technologies and concepts and proof of concepts, whether or not they’re actually fielded. Advanced Research Foundation works on military robotics. It also works on artificial intelligence development. And in 2018, this foundation made a proposal to the MOD in how AI should develop in Russia, the four principles. And ARF thought that AI should develop as speech recognition, image recognition, control of autonomous military systems and control the weapons’ life cycle. So that’s one major institution. Another institution is a recently launched ERA technopolis, or the tech city.

ERA stands for the Russian military elite and it is a 75-acre campus on the Black Sea Coast. Think of it as a, kind of a very small university where researchers live and work. ERA is developed for the young military scientists from across the military, so that they can work side by side with state defense corporations and the private sector in designing and developing breakthrough technologies. And recently the ERA has been designated as the focal point for Russian military artificial intelligence development. So, they are actually working on multiple projects and they’re hosting a lot of debates and discussions on the topic. Other major actors are some of the biggest state corporations and enterprises.

In our previous podcast, I mentioned RosTec, which is “Russian Technologies,” which is a huge umbrella corporation that has several hundred subsidiaries working on all manner of technology development…

Talk turned to swarm robotics, in which Dr. Marks is an expert. See, for example, “Meet the U.S. Army’s new drone swarms: As with insects, only a few drones need survive to accomplish their task”:

Robert J. Marks: You piqued my interest when you mentioned the word swarm, because that’s an area that I’m very interested in. The US army recently developed a swarmer, they’re developing a swarm that’s going to go around helicopters. And these little swarm agents are going to do sophisticated things from electronic warfare to acting as decoys in case there are attack. Are you aware of any of the specific swarm intelligence projects, which are going on in Russia now?

Samuel Bendett: Well, at ARF and the ERA together are working on conceptualizing and developing swarm applications. So ARF is working on a robotic military platform, which they call the Marker and the Marker is supposed to be the test bed for swarming applications, for unmanned ground vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. In other words, how unmanned ground vehicle can cooperate and work together with multiple UAV platforms. So absolutely they’re working on that, in fact, ERA students recently tested several swarming applications and they conducted several swarming projects as funded by the Advanced Research Foundation. So they understand the significance of swarm applications for military, especially for unmanned military systems. They have been working on it for years and they will continue to develop and refine their products.

Note: “Russia Uses ‘Swarm Of Drones’ In Military Exercise For The First Time”: “While this does not appear to be a true drone swarm in the technical sense, in which a collection of unmanned vehicles co-ordinate their actions to operate as a single coherent entity, it does represent a step-change in Russian drone operations.” (Forbes, September 24, 2020)

The discussion turned to other military applications:

Robert J. Marks (pictured): What are some of the other ones that they’re pursuing? Anything on missiles, on autonomous warfare? That’s a big flashpoint in the United States’ debate as to whether we should have automatic military weapons. Anything of that sort going on?

Samuel Bendett: Yes, absolutely. And in fact, the MOD is engaged in a public debate on what the military autonomy means for the future of warfare. Certainly there’s a lot of desire on behalf of the Russian military to develop eventually, weapons that can function autonomously without human interference, or that can perform 99% of the tasks and leave a human operator to kind of make the final decision. So military autonomy is very much under development right now, and very much under the discussion. I mentioned ERA, the ERA technopolis, the tech city. In fact, ERA is a host for an annual military conference called the Robotization of the Russian Armed Forces where they bring together the military, the academia, the end users, and the developers to discuss the ongoing development and application of military robotics. And of course the issue of autonomy is always at the top of the agenda, what is the autonomy? How it can be maintained, how it can be developed and ultimately how it could and should be controlled.

Note: For background, see also “Russia to Create New Tactics for Using Robots in Urban Warfare by 2020 – Source: The news comes amid recent reports about the Russian military boosting its high-tech research, and plans to create multifunctional robotic machines for elaborate combat tasks by 2025. ” (Sputnik News, November 24, 2019)

Robert J. Marks: Sam, the takeaway I have from our chat together is that Russia, in some ways, is duplicating the infrastructure of the United States military in the establishments of these URX, of these think tanks, DARPA sort of think tanks. And would you say that’s a fair assessment?

Samuel Bendett: I would, of course. Why reinvent the wheel? You can just borrow proven concepts and apply them in your own unique fashion.

Here’s Part 1: Russia aims to close the technology gap with the United States. Independent since 1991, the vast nation offers a government version of Silicon Valley culture. A Russian firm, NTechLab, is an industry leader in facial recognition techniques for surveillance of civilians.

You may also wish to look at: Tech investment analysts strategize how to deal with China today. China’s assertions of power in recent years have left many uncertain about the future of business relationships.

Show Notes

  • 00:46 | Introducing Samuel Bendett, advisor with the CNA Adversary Analysis Group
  • 01:17 | How does the Russian military define artificial intelligence?
  • 03:20 | Deepfakes
  • 04:30 | Where is the work on Russian military AI happening?
  • 08:57 | Swarm intelligence projects in Russia
  • 10:37 | The structure of research institutions in Russia
  • 11:19 | Academia in Russian military AI development
  • 12:50 | Development of autonomous weapons in Russia

Additional Resources

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Russia Is Systematically Copying U.S. Military AI Robotics