The Generative AI Boom Could Fuel a New International Arms Race


GOVERNMENTS AROUND THE world are rushing to embrace the algorithms that breathed some semblance of intelligence into ChatGPT, apparently enthralled by the enormous economic payoff expected from the technology.

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Two new reports out this week show that nation-states are also likely rushing to adapt the same technology into weapons of misinformation, in what could become a troubling AI arms race between great powers.

Researchers at RAND, a nonprofit think tank that advises the United States government, point to evidence of a Chinese military researcher who has experience with information campaigns publicly discussing how generative AI could help such work. One research article, from January 2023, suggests using large language models such as a fine-tuned version of Google’s BERT, a precursor to the more powerful and capable language models that power chatbots like ChatGPT.

“There’s no evidence of it being done right now,” says William Marcellino, an AI expert and senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND, who contributed to the report. “Rather someone saying, ‘Here’s a path forward.’” He and others at RAND are alarmed at the prospect of influence campaigns getting new scale and power thanks to generative AI. “Coming up with a system to create millions of fake accounts that purport to be Taiwanese, or Americans, or Germans, that are pushing a state narrative—I think that it’s qualitatively and quantitatively different,” Marcellino says.

Online information campaigns, like the one that Russia’s Internet Research Agency waged to undermine the 2016 US election, have been around for years. They have mostly depended on manual labor—human workers toiling at keyboards. But AI algorithms developed in recent years could potentially mass-produce text, imagery, and video designed to deceive or persuade, or even carry out convincing interactions with people on social media platforms. A recent project suggests that launching such a campaign could cost just a few hundred dollars.