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Invading Ukraine has upended Russia’s A.I. ambitions—and not even China may be able to help

March 25, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that A.I. is “the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind.” He added that “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

But now, after invading Ukraine, Putin’s big artificial intelligence ambitions have been significantly hobbled. Economic sanctions imposed by Western countries are poised to plunge Russia into a deep recession while bans on international flights and its partial ejection from the global SWIFT banking system has cloistered the country from the rest of the world.

“Because of the sanctions companies across the Russian economy, whether in the tech sector or elsewhere, have less money to put into IT,” says Chris Miller, a Tufts University assistant professor and director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program. “So the application of A.I. into any sector of the economy is going to be slower just because money’s going to be tighter.”

How war impacts Russia’s A.I.

Even before the war, and despite Putin’s big talk, Russia’s A.I. “has lagged other countries,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies for the Brookings think tank. U.S. and China are widely considered to be the two dominant A.I. powers while Russia trails behind, as measured by key benchmarks.

For example, Russian researchers produce a comparatively low number of peer-reviewed A.I. academic papers—fewer than 50 in 2019, according to the 2021 Artificial Intelligence Index Report by Stanford University’s Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) unit. In contrast, the U.S. produced over 2,000 such papers while China had over 1,500.

Russia is likely funding additional A.I. research related to its military. But it’s difficult to know because of the secretive nature of Russia’s defense companies and military.

Margarita Konaev, an associate director of analysis and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology unit who is studying the war’s impact on Russia’s military A.I., said Russia is developing artificial intelligence for autonomous drones and surveillance systems. But the recent economic sanctions, such as those that prevent Russia from importing vital computer chips, could hinder its ability to actually build the technologies, she explains.

Most of Russia’s top A.I. engineers work in business or in academia, experts said. Although the country has tried to lure A.I. researchers into military work, they’re generally reluctant to do so “in the same way that not too many Silicon Valley A.I. engineers are dying to go sit in the basement of the Pentagon,” Konaev says.

“It’s a different vibe,” she adds.

Some of Russia’s major businesses use A.I. in their normal operations. For instance, online giant Yandex uses A.I. to improve its search engine, similar to Google, and social media service Vkontakte uses facial-recognition service from startup NtechLab to identify and tag users in photos like Facebook.

Already, the war has accelerated Russia’s long-standing brain drain. The Russian Association of Electronic Communications advocacy group said this week that 50,000 to 70,000 Russian IT workers have left the country because the sanctions have cut off access to technologies that they need to do their jobs.

“The situation in the personnel market of the Russian IT industry in March 2022 is unstable,” the organization wrote in a translated post. “Many specialists faced a choice: leave the country and be able to work with the infrastructure they are used to, or stay in Russia”

China’s tech ties

In recent years, China and Russia have publicized their deepening ties, particularly in A.I. research. Chinese tech giant Huawei, for example, has created A.I. research hubs in Russia, presumably where researchers develop cutting-edge machine learning technologies to improve task like facial recognition.

But the reality is that it’s more limited than advertised, experts said. In fact, Russian A.I. researchers collaborate more with their U.S. counterparts than Chinese technologists, according to the latest Stanford A.I. study. 

In 2021, Russian and U.S. A.I. researchers collaborated on 911 papers while Russians and Chinese researchers produced just 304 papers together.

“It’s clear that the Russians and Chinese want to seem like there’s a lot of technological cooperation between the two,” Miller says.

In general, Russian A.I. researchers now face huge obstacles in collaborating with their peers from nearly all Western countries and access to their technologies. It largely eliminates what has been a big driver of A.I. advancement over the years is researchers from multiple places collaborating and then letting others access their findings for free, also known as open source. 

“I think that’s getting harder over the past couple of weeks and months given the sanctions in place,” Miller said.

Amid Russia’s economic turmoil, Konaev expects Huawei to expand its market share in the country. The upheaval may also end up bolstering Huawei’s research labs by making it easier for the company to recruit Russian A.I. engineers.

“Huawei is also there for talent,” Konaev says. “They are able to pay higher salaries, give better [working] conditions, and whatnot.” 

Chinese cloud computing companies like Alibaba that provide A.I. services could also use the current turmoil in Russia to expand their businesses there, as U.S. cloud giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google pause sales to new Russian customers, West, from Brookings, explained. However, the absence of U.S. cloud computing companies in the market, at least temporarily, means that Russian companies have less leverage in negotiating contracts with Chinese cloud companies. Any deals may cost more and require that Russian customers send their data to China itself despite Russian rules requiring data to be stored within the country.

“Russia is the minor partner with China when it comes to A.I. and cloud services, so they are in a weak bargaining position,” West said. “The problem that Russia will have with China is that they have nowhere to go, and the Chinese know that.”

Although it’s still too early to say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mark a tipping point for A.I. development worldwide, West says. A new Iron Curtain could be created in the tech industry that forces countries to pick sides.

Says West, “It could be the world bifurcates between democracies and autocracies, and it may become the dividing line and there’s little A.I. talent development across those blocks.”

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