When it comes to the U.S. relationship with China, it's complicated. The Chinese are an important U.S. trade partner, but also an adversary and competitor. Our scientists are monitoring the communist nation's work on weapons technologies that are both reason to marvel and cause for concern. More on that from Glenn Tiffert, a China policy expert at the Hoover Institution. He says the biggest areas to watch are biotechnology and artificial-intelligence or “AI”-empowered weapons.
Sharyl Attkisson: Can you describe an example of what AI technology weaponry would be, or something that's on the forefront that you're talking about?
Glenn Tiffert, Hoover Institution: So there's a broad range of AI-enabled weapons technologies. Obviously, the ability to identify targets and track targets autonomously using drone technology would be one application. But there's also AI tools used for cyber offense. For example, to probe the defenses of an adversary to find weak spots and to be able to penetrate their cyber networks. Then with regard to biotechnology, obviously there are biological weapons that could be designed. But beyond that too, there are also therapies that could be designed, like vaccines to protect your own troops from diseases that might affect the adversary's troops.
Sharyl Attkisson: I’ve read something about the Chinese talking about creating genetic weapons or experimenting with weapons that, for example, would target only non-Chinese people. What are we talking about with that?
Glenn Tiffert, Hoover Institution: So, some of these discussions do kind of verge into the realm of sci-fi, but it is absolutely true that China is doing research at the level of genomes to be able to distinguish different populations from one another and to identify markers that are associated with particular populations, whether they track with ethnicities or racial groups, in order to identify vulnerabilities or ways to identify who a person is on the basis of their DNA. And it is conceivable that, if they did find a marker or a vulnerability in someone's genetic profile or a genome or set of markers associated with a particular population subgroup, that that could represent a vulnerability. But this is a Pandora's box, and we're not really there yet. It's a frontier area of technology definitely worth exploring.
Sharyl Attkisson: Chinese scholars have written about brain-controlled weapons. Again, this sounds very sci-fi. Maybe it's not. Do you have any idea what they're talking about?
Glenn Tiffert, Hoover Institution: It is a little bit on the frontier and a little bit sci-fi, but they have labs where they're trying to develop brain interfaces for weapons so that you could fly a drone or pilot a tank or an autonomous submersible vehicle simply by wearing a headset that transmits your brainwaves to it. It’s a technology that the U.S. has not quite explored in the same way, but China has labs built out to begin to explore this.
Sharyl Attkisson: Is there anything that we believe China's working on that violates international agreements when it comes to warfare and what conventions we're supposed to follow?
Glenn Tiffert, Hoover Institution: Well, China actually isn't party to a lot of those conventions, and China also does not observe the same ethical stands with regard to basic research. So they've explored areas, for example, like editing of the human genome. There was a Chinese scientist who pioneered the editing of fetuses, and so there are now babies who are the first edited human babies that are now, I think, toddlers at this point, growing up in China. This is a territory, a frontier, that the U.S. never would've crossed. China is not held back by the same standards, so it's pushing into areas that we've not touched.
Sharyl Attkisson: Do you have a sense that there are people in authority who understand what you're saying enough to be addressing this so that we don't fall behind?
Glenn Tiffert, Hoover Institution: I think people in Washington certainly do at the highest levels. The challenge, of course, is the U.S. is very decentralized. We're a free society, so it's very hard to align industry, academia, and government all pointing in the same direction in order to solve this problem. China has the communist party to solve that problem for it, and so the communist party ensures that everyone's on message and pulls in the same direction. And so they’re able to achieve some things that are a little bit harder for us to achieve, partly because we are free.
Sharyl (on-camera): The Covid pandemic revealed a controversial U.S. partnership with Chinese scientists to work on risky bat coronavirus research. As of now, the U.S. has taken no public steps to suspend work on sensitive and dangerous scientific projects with the communist Chinese.