China's Beijing Institute of Technology, which specialises in weapons research, has recruited a group of teenagers straight out of school to work on autonomous armaments.
All of the 27 students are 18 or younger, and where chosen for the four-year ‘experimental programme for intelligent weapons systems' from more than 5,000 candidates.
"We are looking for other qualities such as creative thinking, willingness to fight, a persistence when facing challenges," an unnamed professor at the BIT told the South China Morning Post. "A passion for developing new weapons is a must … and they must also be patriots."
The teens will have to choose a field to specialise in, such as mechanical engineering, electronics or overall weapon design. After finishing the course, they will be expected to continue on to a PhD programme and eventually become the future leaders of China's AI weapons research.
China has aspirations to become a world leader in AI and autonomous tools, and has already been accused of using the technology in espionage. This week, the Xinhua state news agency unveiled AI news presenters at the World Internet Day conference - China's answer to Davos.
First, though, the country must catch up to the rest of the world - in particular the USA, which is the current AI leader. It is well under way, with research ongoing at domestic technology giants like Baidu and Tencent, and Chinese research papers accepted at respected AI conferences.
This is the great benefit, and threat, of an authoritarian society: the government can divert funds to wherever it likes, working with top scientists at private institutions to drive innovation forward at a pace that would be unthinkable in a less controlled state.
Earlier this year, thousands of scientists signed a pledge stating that they would not help to develop autonomous weapons. China's foreign ministry told the SCMP that it was ‘very aware' of the possible problems with such systems. In April this year, the Chinese government submitted a position paper to the UN appealing for more discussions on the subject:
‘As products of emerging high technologies, development and use of lethal autonomous weapons systems would reduce the threshold of war, and the cost of warfare on the part of the user countries. This would make it easier and more frequent for wars to break out.
‘Until such discussions have been had, there should not be any preset premises or prejudged outcome which may impede the development of AI technology,' it said.
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