US ‘likely to sanction’ Baidu despite Chinese military AI denials

Chinese technology company Baidu is likely to face US sanctions as a result of reports linking its artificial intelligence (AI)-based chatbot ‘Ernie’ to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), analysts suggest.

On Monday (January 15), Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post cited an academic paper that claimed the PLA had tested the large language model (LLM) on Baidu’s ‘Ernie’ bot and AI firm iFlytek‘s Spark.

The document came from a Chinese university linked to the PLA Strategic Support Force, described as a “new branch of China’s military” by Wilson Jones, a defense analyst at GlobalData.

“The Strategic Support Force is focused on electronic, cyber and space warfare, but military deployment of artificial intelligence is firmly within its mission,” Jones said. Verdict.

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From GlobalData

After the report from the South China Morning PostBaidu shares fell 14.7% to HKD 96.8 ($12.4) today (Jan 17), the lowest point in more than a year.

Internet users in Hong Kong and Taiwan landed on a “404” error page when they tried to access a online link to the institute’s research paper about Baidu-PLA cooperation.


The paper was still accessible from mainland China, Bloomberg mentionted.

Beijing is hedging military bets on artificial intelligence

Baidu, which said it had “no knowledge of the research project and if our large language model was used, it would be the version publicly available online,” has often been touted as China’s answer to OpenAI.

After making Ernie publicly available in August 2023, Baidu said in December that it had amassed more than 100 million users.

The tech company has become the leading AI developer in China in recent months, staying ahead of bigger rivals such as Tencent.

Baidu’s unprecedented growth has come as the Chinese government invests huge sums in military technology.

In 2023, Beijing boasted of the second largest defense budget in the world at $230.3 billion, according to a GlobalData report, while the PLA regularly funds “university scholarships for students in military technology, including AI technology,” Jones said.

China is far from the only nation with significant entanglement between private technology companies and military establishments, as evidenced by the growing dominance of SpaceX‘small Starlink satellites in the context of US space missions.

Regardless, the U.S. response “will likely be sanctions and bans on Baidu products for elected officials and members of the military,” Jones added.

A similar approach was taken in 2022 when Washington banned telecommunications products from Huawei over concerns about data collection and mass surveillance.

AI or human soldiers?

In addition to LLM trials, military adoption of AI is becoming increasingly prevalent on the battlefield.

The battle scenarios from the Ukraine to the Middle East have been inundated with roving munitions, which hover over a designated war zone and locate enemy targets before striking.

The Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 are known as “suicide drones” because they fly into targets and explode on impact.

Ukraine and the US have previously accused Tehran of supplying Moscow with hundreds of Shahed UAVs through production plants in Belarus and Russia.

The ethics of automating the decision to strike is highly controversial.

In most war zones, personnel are taught the ‘OODA Loop’ (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) when processing the environment and responding to enemy actions.

“Artificial intelligence computers can compute these processes much faster than a human brain ever could,” Jones said. “For example, an AI air defense system could identify a flying target, calculate its speed and trajectory, determine whether it is friend or foe, and decide how to intercept within minutes.”

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