U.S. Military Admits for First Time That China Is Selling Lethal Autonomous Drones

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper called working with China on A.I. ‘a short and narrow-sighted focus on economic opportunity’

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

UU.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper spoke out against China’s sale of highly autonomous drones on the international market for the first time today, calling into question China’s previous position that autonomous robots were dangerous and posed a “humanitarian concern.”

“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 [unmanned aerial vehicles] when those come on line,” Esper said today during a conference organized by the National Security Commission of Artificial Intelligence. “In addition, Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling drones advertised as capable of full autonomy, including the ability to conduct lethal targeted strikes.”

This is the first time a top U.S. official has spoken about China’s sale of lethal autonomous drones, even though it is suspected that the machines have been sold to countries in the Middle East since at least late 2018. Chinese state media has publicized the availability of autonomous lethal drones for months.

The rhetoric highlights concern from within the administration about China’s military A.I. ambitions, and highlights the DoD’s sense of immediacy in grappling with how China is spreading its autonomous technology across the world.

Two Chinese companies backed by government funds have been widely identified as vendors of lethal drones. Ziyan, which partnered with the Chinese ministry of public security last year, sells drones that can be outfitted with guns or bombs. State-owned Chinese Aerospace Science and Tech Corporation has also shown off its autonomous aerial weaponry.

The Chinese government has not publicly endorsed the use of autonomously lethal robots and state officials partially endorsed the Stop Killer Robots campaign, a worldwide organizing effort to ban such machines. That said, China has not condemned the research and development of autonomously lethal drones, and never indicated it would ban the technology from use on the battlefield.

The U.S. military has used human-controlled and semi-autonomous drone strikes in seven countries to date, sparking international outcry. The Department of Defense spent $7 billion of its 2018 budget developing the technology. It has also sold unarmed surveillance drones to allied countries in the South China Sea.

Esper also cast China’s use of artificial intelligence as a tool to impose authoritarian rule over its population, especially Muslim Uyghurs.

“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,” he said, urging the A.I. community to stop enabling Chinese firms’ unethical use of the technology.

“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 A.I.,” he said. “Our collective security must not be diminished by a short and narrow-sighted focus on economic opportunity.”

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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