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Benjamin Chang: Might technology tip the global scales?

MIT graduate student is assessing the impacts of artificial intelligence on military power, with a focus on the US and China.
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Political science PhD candidate Benjamin Chang is focusing his research on impacts of artificial intelligence on military power, especially in China and the U.S.
Political science PhD candidate Benjamin Chang is focusing his research on impacts of artificial intelligence on military power, especially in China and the U.S.
Photo: Benjamin Chang
"The U.S. has satellite and other remote sensors that provide too much intelligence for human analysts," says Benjamin Chang.
"The U.S. has satellite and other remote sensors that provide too much intelligence for human analysts," says Benjamin Chang.
Photo: SpaceX/Pixabay

The United States and China seem locked in an ever-tightening embrace, superpowers entangled in a web of economic and military concerns. "Every issue critical to world order — whether climate change, terrorism, or trade — is clearly and closely intertwined with U.S.-China relations," says Benjamin Chang, a fourth-year PhD candidate in political science concentrating in international relations and security studies. "Competition between these nations will shape all outcomes anyone cares about in the next 50 years or more."

Little surprise, then, that Chang is homing in on this relationship for his thesis, which broadly examines the impact of artificial intelligence on military power. As China and the United States circle each other as rivals and uneasy partners on the global stage, Chang hopes to learn what the integration of artificial intelligence in different domains might mean for the balance of power.

"There is a set of questions related to how technology will be used in the world in general, where the U.S. and China are the two actors with the most influence," says Chang. "I want to know, for instance, how AI will affect strategic stability between them."

The nuclear balance

In the domain of military power, one question Chang has been pursuing is whether the use of AI in nuclear strategy offers a battlefield advantage. "For the U.S., the main issue involves locating China's elusive mobile missile launchers," Chang says. "The U.S. has satellite and other remote sensors that provide too much intelligence for human analysts, but AI, with its image classifiers based on deep learning, could sort through all this data to locate Chinese assets in a timely fashion."

While Chang's data draws on publicly available information about each side's military capabilities, these sources can't provide specific numbers for China's nuclear arsenal. "We don't know if China has 250 or 300 nukes, so I design programs to run combat simulations with high and low numbers of weapons to try and isolate the effects of AI on combat outcomes." Chang credits J. Chappell Lawson, Vipin Narang, and Eric Heginbotham — his advisors in international relations and security studies — for helping shape his research methodology.

If the United States develops the capacity to locate these mobile nuclear assets quickly, "that could change the battlefield outcome and hold China's arsenal at risk," says Chang. "And if China feels it isn't able to protect its nuclear arsenal, it might have an incentive to use it or lose it."

In subsequent research, Chang will examine the impacts of AI on cybersecurity and on autonomous weaponry such as drones.

A start in policy debate

Pondering international and security issues began early for Chang. "I developed a big interest in these subjects through policy debate, which motivated me to read hundreds of pages and gave me a breadth and depth of knowledge on disparate topics," he says. "Debate exposed me to the study of military affairs and got me interested in America's role in the world generally."

Chang's engagement with policy deepened at Princeton University, where he earned his BA summa cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. While he knew he wanted to focus on foreign policy of some kind, his special focus on China came fortuitously: He was assigned to a junior seminar where students developed a working paper on "Building the Rule of Law in China." He took a series of Mandarin language courses, and produced a thesis comparing 19th century American nationalist behavior with modern-day Chinese nationalism.

By graduation, Chang knew he wanted to aim for a career in national security and policy by way of a graduate school education. But he sought real-world seasoning first: a two-year stint as an analyst at Long Term Strategy Group, a Washington defense research firm. At LTSG, Chang facilitated wargames simulating Asia-Pacific conflicts, and wrote monographs on Chinese foreign policy, nuclear signaling, and island warfare doctrine.

Bridging a divide

Today, he is applying this expertise. "I'm trying to use my computer science understanding to bridge the gap between people working at a highly technical level of AI, and folks in security studies who are perhaps less familiar with the technology," he says. Propelled by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a research fellowship with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Chang continues with his simulations and is beginning to write up some of his analysis. He thinks some of his findings might prove surprising.

"There is an assumption — based on China's vast collection of personal data and surveillance of citizens — that AI is the means by which China will leapfrog the U.S. in military power," says Chang. "But I think this is wrong." In fact, the United States "has much more military-relevant data than China does, because it collects on so many platforms — in the deep ocean, and from satellites — that are a holdover from fighting the Soviet Union."

Among Chang's research challenges: the fact that AI is not a mature technology and hasn't been fully implemented in modern militaries. "There's not yet much literature or data to draw on when assessing its impact," he notes. Also, he would like to nail down a good definition of AI for his field. "With current definitions of AI, thinking about its influence is a bit like investigating the effect of explosives on international affairs: you could be talking about nuclear weapons or dynamite and gunpowder," he says. "In my dissertation I'm attempting a scoping of AI so that it's more amenable to good political science analysis."

Getting these ideas down on paper will be Chang's job for at least the next year. The writing occasionally feels like a struggle. "Some days I'll sit there and it won't come out, and other days, after a long walk along the Charles, I can write all day, and it feels good."

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