China nuclear submarine
China is investing on AI-capable nuclear subs REUTERS/Guang Niu/Pool

China is working on AI-backed nuclear submarines that would think on their own and give an upper-hand to the military during undersea battles.

Artificial intelligence is being applied in a range of fields and its plausible military applications have long been predicted. Now, Beijing is actually pushing those predictions to a reality by upgrading its nuclear subs with machine intelligence.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior scientist involved in the programme told South China Morning Post (SCMP) that the country wants to equip existing computer systems on its submarines with a compatible AI solution, something that would not only assist with undersea operations but also reduce the workload on commanding officers and crewmembers on board.

During battles, commanding officers can come under pressure and take incorrect decisions, however, the AI-capable sub, when ready, would be able to prevent that from happening.

Specifically, the tech will acquire knowledge, advance its skills using loads of observational data, and use those skills to develop an appropriate strategy for different missions.

The system, as the report says, could better understand ever-changing underwater conditions during battles and detect potential threats much earlier than its human counterparts. It could even suggest submarine commanders benefits and risks of different manoeuvres or may even suggest a better move to give combat advantage.

China is currently pumping its resources for the programme, the researcher said. The country has laid down some specific guidelines for the upgrade, the most basic of which requires the scientists to ensure that the system handles the dynamic underwater environment and stays failure-free.

"What the military cares most about is not fancy features," the researcher said. "What they care most is the thing that does not screw up amid the heat of a battle."

The deployment of the tech could be a game-changer but that does not mean that the country would cut back on its crew. "There must be a human hand in every critical post. This is for safety redundancy".

The work on AI-capable nuclear subs comes months after several technology luminaries expressed concerns over the rise of killer weapons, self-controllable machines that could prove a threat to human life. However, Deng Zhidong, an AI scholar at Beijing's Tsinghua University told SCMP that such technology is far from reality.