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Biden, Xi set to pledge ban on AI in autonomous weapons like drones, nuclear warhead control: sources

In a landmark agreement set to be announced at Wednesday's much-awaited bilateral meeting, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are poised to pledge a ban on the use of artificial intelligence in autonomous weaponry, such as drones, and in the control and deployment of nuclear warheads, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed to the Post.

The potential dangers of AI are expected to be a major focus of the US-China discussions, taking place on the sidelines of this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.

Both Washington and Beijing have expressed concerns over the unregulated use of this technology to fuel conflicts.

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In February, for instance, the United States introduced its Political Declaration on the Responsible Military Use of Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy, a new legal and diplomatic framework that seeks a global consensus on the development and deployment of military AI.

So far, 36 countries have backed the initiative, pledging to come together next year to explore ways to implement and improve new regulations on the matter.

In October, the Biden administration also announced requirements for the approval of advanced AI products. Under the new rules, such initiatives must receive federal government certification, ensuring they cannot be repurposed for creating biological or nuclear weapons.

China has also advanced significantly in this sector. In his work report delivered at last year's Communist Party national congress, Xi pledged to "foster the unified and focused growth of strategic emerging industries", with a special emphasis on AI.

Additionally, the People's Liberation Army of China has been for years exploring ways to enhance autonomous weapons systems through the integration of advanced AI technologies.

Experts interviewed by the Post welcomed the inclusion of this issue in the list of priority agendas for the Biden and Xi meeting.

"It is essential to keep a human in the loop in nuclear command and control given some of the problems we've seen so far with AI," said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Oriana Skylar Mastro, affiliated with Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said that as militaries increasingly integrate AI, one of the initial agreements between the parties should be to avoid automating nuclear command and control systems.

Mastro noted that currently, human operators handle decision-making and launch procedures, "but there is a discussion about automating, having machines that can automate parts of these processes".

She also said although Biden and Xi were likely to agree on sustaining nuclear dialogues, talks on nuclear arms control will not happen this time.

China is very "sensitive" about the concept of arms control, she noted, as it has "an arsenal much smaller than the United States".

"They're unwilling to engage in arms control with the US, [and] I don't think that position will change."

Although praised, dialogue on AI falls short of indicating a broader consensus on other military matters. China has already signalled to the US that it intends to restore military-to-military dialogue channels, but it still defends positions that are radically different from those adopted by Washington.

A source informed the Post that the US-China joint statement remains unfinished, with diplomats at odds over language concerning the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel.

Additionally, an agreement has not been reached on Taiwan, which is set for presidential elections in January, and the PLA Navy's activities in the South China Sea, impacting neighbouring countries like the Philippines.

Yet, a consensus has been reached on less contentious issues, including increasing daily US-China flights to enhance person-to-person cooperation, implementing stricter regulations for overseeing and penalising laboratories in China associated with fentanyl production, and announcing collaborative research and development of public health policies.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.