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UK spy chief warns China, Russia racing to master AI

  • November 30, 2021

The chief of the United Kingdom’s foreign spy service is to warn that China and Russia are racing to master artificial intelligence in a way that could revolutionise geopolitics over the next 10 years.

Richard Moore, who heads the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, is due to make his first public speech since becoming chief of the organisation on Tuesday.

In extracts of the speech released in advance by the British government he will say quantum engineering, engineered biology, vast troves of data and advances in computer power pose a threat that needs to be addressed by democratic powers.

“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage,” Moore, who rarely makes public speeches, will say when he sets out his view of current threats.

The world’s spies are trying to grapple with seismic advances in technology that are challenging traditional human-led spying operations, which have dominated espionage for thousands of years.

Moore, a former diplomat, became MI6 chief in October 2020.

Speaking at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies think tank, he will stress that technological progress over the next decade could outstrip all the tech advances made over the past century.

“As a society, we have yet to internalise this stark fact and its potential impact on global geopolitics. But it is a white-hot focus for MI6,” he will say.

Of particular concern to the spies in the world’s liberal democracies are Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies, which have rushed to harness the power of a range of sophisticated technologies, sometimes at a faster pace than in the West.

Western intelligence agencies fear Beijing could dominate all key emerging technologies within decades, particularly artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and genetics.

China’s economic and military rise over the past 40 years is considered one of the most significant geopolitical events of recent times, alongside the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, which ended the Cold War.

MI6, depicted by novelists as the employer of some of the most memorable fictional spies from John le Carré’s George Smiley to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, operates overseas and is tasked with defending the UK and its interests.

Moore says the service will have to give up some of its deep-rooted secrecy and work with technology firms to combat the rapidly developing threats.

MI6 and western intelligence agencies will have to “become more open to stay secret” in a world of destabilising technological change, he will say.

“We cannot hope to replicate the global tech industry, so we must tap into it.”

The agency has become more open in recent years, even allowing publication of an authorised history although it only covers the period up until 1949.

MI6 began publicly naming its chief, who uses the code name C and is the only publicly identifiable member of the organisation, in the 1990s.

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