The digital arms race between the United States and Russia appears to be accelerating, fueled in part by new comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, speaking to a group of Russian students Friday, called artificial intelligence “not only Russia’s future” but “the future of the whole of mankind.”
“The one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world,” he said. “There are colossal opportunities and threats that are difficult to predict now.”
Top U.S. intelligence officials have been warning of a “perpetual contest” between the United States and Russia, with much of it playing out in the digital domain.
The Defense Intelligence Agency in particular has sought to maximize its ability to make use of artificial intelligence, or AI, reaching out to private industry and academia to help maintain the U.S. advantage.
Russia and China are seen as key competitors in the digital space and have been working on how to apply technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, to their war-fighting doctrines.
“They’ve got their heads wrapped around the idea that 21st century warfare is as much cognitive as it is kinetic,” outgoing DIA Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart told a small group of reporters from VOA and other organizations last month.
Top officials, both in government and in the private sector, have long been willing to discuss the impact of artificial intelligence and other technological advances.
But some analysts see Putin’s willingness to address the issue publicly as telling.
“[It’s] rare that you have a head of state discussing these issues,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. “He is sending a message.”
And Cilluffo hopes the U.S. is paying attention.
“A big space race is on, and it’s a race we can’t afford to lose,” he said.
US maintains advantage
Many experts say the U.S. still maintains an advantage over Russia in artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Still, as Russia, China and other countries seek additional breakthroughs in how to apply such technology, the stakes are high.
“It completely changes the game of warfare,” said David Kennedy, who served with the U.S. National Security Agency and with the Marine Corps’ electronic warfare unit.
“It’s no longer going to be about who has the most bombs or who has the better bombs,” he said. “It’s going to be who can apply these principles to respond faster to fight a war and win a war.”
And Kennedy, now chief executive officer at TrustedSec, an information technology security consulting firm, sees Russia gaining.
“They explore all options, and they have a substantial budget for it,” he said, noting that Moscow may have an advantage in how to apply the technology since it is willing to sidestep privacy and ethical concerns that the U.S. and even China have tried to address.
China, too, is making significant gains. But unlike Russia, China has focused more on quantum computing, launching a quantum satellite into space last year.
Quantum computing uses a quirk of physics that allows subatomic particles to simultaneously exist in two different states. As a result, a computer is then able to skip through much of the elaborate mathematical computations necessary to solve complex problems.
It is seen as a potentially game-changing tool for intelligence agencies, enabling them to hack encrypted messages from their adversaries while their own communications would be “hackproof,” if the technology can be perfected.
“The Chinese have one of the most powerful quantum encryption capabilities in the world,” DIA’s Stewart cautioned last month. “Whoever wins this space wins the game.”