Why China and other countries are building alternatives to GPS


The Global Positioning System (GPS) is like Google, Kleenex, or YouTube -- an entity so successful that its name represents an entire market. But GPS, which is built and operated by the US Air Force, has competitors. Other systems, like Russian-developed Glonass, complement GPS coverage. Galileo, an EU project, was designed to be more secure.

Instead of working together to maintain a standard global service, a handful of countries have developed their own systems, largely to avoid having to rely on one another.

"Satellite positioning has already become the standard means of navigating," says a 2014 European Space Agency press release. "If the signals were switched off or degraded tomorrow, many ship and aircraft crews would find it inconvenient and difficult to revert to traditional navigation methods."

Fears of access loss or denial are not unfounded. During the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999, the US refused to provide India with GPS data that would help its military study the terrain. For India, the access denial was a reminder of who owns the system.

A year later, in 2000, US President Bill Clinton signed a bill ending a practice called Selective Availability, which had until then broken GPS access into two classes-- one for US military use, and a degraded version for public signals. But that didn't convince the Indian government. As a result of the 1999 incident, they developed their own positioning system, the IRNSS.

In the same year that President Clinton ended Selective Availability, China launched the first satellites that would make up their BeiDou posititioning system.

BeiDou, which means "Big Dipper" in Chinese, has offered navigation services to people from Australia to Southern Russia since 2012. Thailand was the service's first foreign client in 2013.

The project announced it would provide service to Belt and Road-participating countries in 2019, and plans to cover the entire globe by 2020.

Domestically, the Chinese government has issued quotas for buses, taxis, and trains to adopt BeiDou's navigation and location service.


The Militarization of AI

October 29th

In 2001 -- years before Tesla, autonomous taxis and the current AI development race -- Congress mandated that one-third of all military ground vehicles should be unmanned by 2015. That deadline has come and gone, but it shows: the days of the military having technology ahead of the private sector may be over, but the ambition is still there.

While it may or may not lead to terminator-like robots, AI-enabled technologies like image recognition, predictive modelling, and computer vision will almost certainly be used in a wide range of military operations and tasks.

Many technologies originally developed for consumer facing products may find their way to militaries, according to Wired:

Algorithms good at searching holiday photos can be repurposed to scour spy satellite imagery, for example, while the control software needed for an autonomous minivan is much like that required for a driverless tank. Many recent advances in developing and deploying artificial intelligence emerged from research from companies such as Google.

And while large tech firms and other leading AI development groups take varied approaches to the ethics of their work -- how to care for user privacy and safety on their platforms, for example -- defence ministries and governments around the world are developing their own unique rules for how to use AI.

In the US, tech companies have become increasingly unwilling to work with the US military. Google, for example, pulled out of a drone project (called Project Maven) with the department of defense after employees petitioned against the waponization of AI. It also chose not to bid on JEDI, a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract, saying that "we couldn't be assured that it would align with our AI principles."

In China, large tech firms are more willing to work on military projects, though the link between its private sector and the military is not clear. Huawei, it was discovered, has worked with the People's Liberation Army on at least 10 research projects, some involving the use of AI to analyze satellite imagery.

However, the explosion in AI research and development in China hasn't translated to the military, at least not yet. From the Council on Foreign Relations:

Many observers assume that because Chinese state-capitalism blurs the lines between state and private, those lines are in effect frictionless. In reality, the opposite is true. The eleven large state-owned enterprises that comprise China’s defense industrial base, many of which until the late 1990s were Maoist-era relics, have largely cordoned themselves off from the actual economy. Although the Chinese Communist Party has established internal Party committees in large technology enterprises like Baidu and Tencent to promote Party loyalty, that linkage has not necessarily allowed China to easily translate its booming tech sector into military might.