From the reign of Peter the Great to the Soviet era, and now under President Putin, Russia has
been intent to, as Lenin termed it, “catch up and surpass” the West. That ambition applies to AI,
September 1, 2017. It was the first day of school in Russia, a much-beloved unofficial holiday, and President Vladimir Putin was on stage in a national TV broadcast, chatting with jeans-clad teenagers about the future.“Artificial intelligence is the future,” he told them, “not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”Then, this March, in the final moments of Putin’s re-election campaign, came a stern message to lawmakers at his annual address to parliament: “The speed of technological progress is accelerating sharply... Those who manage to ride this technological wave will surge far ahead. Those who fail to do this will be submerged and drown.”“As soon as possible,” Putin said, Russia “needs to eliminate all barriers to the development and wide use of robotic equipment, artificial intelligence, unmanned vehicles, e-commerce, and big-data-processing technology.”
Spurred from the top, could Russia one day muster real competition with the great powers in the AI field? The implications of the question are great, as indeed, current and potential applications of the technology cross sectors and range from the beneficial to the malign. Russia’s recent social-media-based propaganda campaigns to influence Western elections employed only relatively basic AI, but achieved certain impact. Today, it is unclear whether the country can achieve top AI status, but from Washington to Beijing, other capitals are tracking Moscow’s efforts.The undisputed world leaders in artificial intelligence are the United States and China. Compared to their investment in the field, the Russian government lags far behind. According to the Russian tech website cnews.ru, the size of the AI/machine learning market in the country was less than $12 million in 2017. That’s estimated to grow, and markedly, to some $460 million by 2020. Still, the figure is dwarfed by the roughly $7.4 billion that the Pentagon budgeted last year on AI and allied fields like big data and cloud computing.Yet even if Russia’s AI industry is in its nascence, Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, is nervous.Looming larger and larger in the Defense Department’s rear-view mirror is China. Beijing alone plans to build an artificial intelligence development park with $2.12-billion price tag. By 2020, the country envisions developing a domestic AI industry worth more than $24 billion, a figure that the government says will more than double five years after that.Yet even if Russia’s AI industry is in its nascence, Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, is nervous. This January, at a BBC event in London, he was asked about Vladimir Putin’s “ruler of the world” prediction.“I’m very concerned about this,” he said. “I think both the Russian and the Chinese leaders have recognized the value of this, not just for their commercial aspirations, but also their military aspirations.”From Peter the Great in the 18th century to the Soviet era, and now under Putin, Russia has been intent to, as Lenin termed it, “catch up and surpass” the West. (In this case, the East, too.) The president’s urgings should be viewed, writes Samuel Bendett of the American Foreign Policy Council, as “a recognition of Russia’s current place in this unfolding technology race, and of the need by the nation’s government, private sector, and the military to marshal the needed resources to persevere in this domain.”Find That FaceIf Russia is to “ride this technological wave,” as Putin describes it, the country will need people like Artem Kukharenko.
About three miles north of the Kremlin, in a small office inside a high-rise building, Kukharenko is seated at his computer close to a large window, silhouetted against Moscow’s skyline. On his computer screen is a photograph of a woman’s face with a fine net of tiny white lines displayed across it. It’s a depiction, he tells me, of the facial recognition software that he and several fellow computer geeks developed and then used as a springboard to start their company, NtechLab.
....MUCH MOREThe software relies on AI technology, employing algorithms to rapidly compare photos of individuals against a face-image database. It can be used for a wide variety of purposes: verifying a face to unlock a smartphone; scanning shoppers to compile data on customers; locating missing people; finding a potential date; identifying criminals; and, in some cases, targeting political opponents...