Artificial intelligence has been rising in practical uses for the past several decades. From smart devices to automated weapons, it has changed the way humans live and how countries interact with one another. Russian President Vladimir Putin commented in 2017 that “artificial intelligence is the future not only of Russia but of all mankind. There are huge opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to foresee today… the industry leader will rule the world.”
What exactly is artificial intelligence and how has it developed in Russia since 2017? Those questions are discussed in this article.
Defining Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to a machine’s ability to perform human-associated tasks like reasoning, learning, planning, or creativity. Machines enabled with AI are able to perceive and react to what they perceive.
Virtual assistants such as Siri or Alexa are popular examples of AI. However, AI is used in a wide range of industries, such as big data, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Big data refers to high volumes of digital information, which AI systems analyze and learn from. Big data is now used in everything from linguistic studies to voter targeting during elections. Machine learning allows a machine to learn a task that was not specifically programmed into it. This is typically the goal of artificial intelligence programs and has a wide array of potential uses from drug development to agriculture. The Internet of Things refers to the global system of internet-connected objects, namely computers and smart devices, that send and receive data electronically, which can additionally feed into both big data and machine learning.
Around 2012, a breaking point was reached for these technologies as more raw computer power and bigger datasets became increasingly widely available. AI was given increasingly difficult tasks such as identifying images, speech, or asked to find patterns in large, diverse datasets.
Despite such advancements, AI is still limited by its need for cataloged data and context. Likely until the late 2020s, AI technologies will continue to rely heavily on humans to give it starting points to raw material to build from. However, as the power of AI grows, so will its scale and pervasiveness in society.
National AI Initiatives in Russia
Nearly a year after Putin’s comment on AI, the Russian government launched national AI development initiatives. The first major initiative came as a part of the Digital Economy Program approved in 2018. The program bolstered domestic spending on the digitization of the economy through six priority programs – information infrastructure, information security, digitalization of public services, end-to-end digital technologies, human capital, and adaption of the regulatory environment. Russia has given specific focus to end-to-end digital technologies, which uses digital technologies to help agencies or businesses transform their processes by removing unnecessary steps and adding automation. Russia has consistently lagged in workforce efficiency and its economic development plans have focused on it as an area for fast improvement.
The Digital Economy Program also tasked Sberbank with creating a roadmap on the development of AI and neurotechnology. Sberbank is Russia’s major state-owned retail bank which has used its soaring profits over recent years to branch into digital technologies, logistics, and other non-core services.
Published in November 2019, Sberbank’s roadmap outlines important AI subtechnologies like natural language processing, speech recognition, and computer vision. It also outlines the funding needed for each. Earlier that year, Putin also tasked Sberbank with creating a national strategy on AI, separate from the roadmap. The strategy was approved in October 2019 and serves as the basis for planning and implementing state programs related to AI through 2030. It does not outline funding, but rather serves as a central planning document.
To help achieve the goals laid out in the AI strategy, Sberbank was tasked with creating a federal AI project. The project added funding and performance metrics and set a timeline for the development and implementation of AI technologies. In August 2020, it became the seventh program of the Digital Economy Program. At this time, the Russian government began implemented a set of legal reforms to foster innovation in AI. Most importantly, the reforms allowed for increased experimentation with AI technologies.
Russian Law No. 123-FZ established an experimental legal regime (commonly referred to as a regulatory sandbox) in Moscow. Coming into effect in July 2020, its aim was to promote innovation over the course of five years. Importantly, the law contains an amendment to the law “On Personal Data,” passed in 2006, that allows for the processing of anonymized personal health data of Russian citizens. The authors of the bill claim that the amendment is needed to gather the large amounts of information needed for the development and testing of AI technologies.
In July 2021, Russian Law No. 258-FZ established a similar regulatory sandbox for all of Russia. It aimed to promote development in AI, quantum technology, big data, and robotics. To participate, entrepreneurs and organizations submit an application to the Ministry of Economic Development for approval.
Russia’s AI Ecosystem
Russia’s AI ecosystem is dominated by the state-owned company Sberbank, who developed many of the national AI initiatives. Sberbank has extensive state and private business connections in AI, and growing involvement in coordinating academic research, private investment, and international interest through joint projects. In December 2020, the company announced that it would open the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute, the first of its kind in Russia, with the mission of promoting AI research. Additionally, in November 2019, Sberbank CEO announced the creation of the AI Alliance Russia and its supervision by the Ministry of Economic Development. The alliances’ goal is to foster greater cooperation on AI in the private sector. Participants include Yandex, Mail.ru, Gazprom Neft, MTS, Sberbank, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund. However, some of these participants have been competitors in the past and little visible cooperation has occurred so far.
There are several other major players that include:
- Rostec: This state-owned company also plays a significant role in Russia’s AI ecosystem, though mostly through the defense sector. The company is naturally interested in AI as a part of its effort to develop new weapons systems. They have obviously been more secretive than Sberbank. Under the Digital Economy Project, Rostec is not tasked with any AI work. However, it is tasked with work on technologies related to AI like 5G, blockchains, and IoT devices. Rostec’s most prominent use of AI is in facial recognition. NTechlab (one of Rostec’s AI partners) has outsourced FindFace, a facial recognition software, and other AI-driven technologies to the parts Russian security apparatus and private sector. In 2017, FindFace algorithms were built into the Moscow city video surveillance system. Rostec is also attempting to develop AI for advancements in Russian manufacturing processes.
- Yandex: Russia’s biggest and most successful technology firm, Yandex has played a secondary role in the official AI strategy. Yandex is privately owned and thus has not been relied on as heavily as state-run organization for the state’s official programs. Yandex has a strife relationship with Sberbank. The technology company recently exited a partnership with Sberbank after a disagreement between the two companies forced them to dissolve their joint ventures. In September 2020, Yandex announced plans to acquire Tinkoff, and although the plans fell through, it placed the company in direct competition with Sberbank. Sberbank now partners with Yandex’s rival, Mail.ru.
- Gazprom Neft: Russia’s fourth largest oil company is the only industrial company with membership in the AI-Alliance. Developing advanced technologies is at the center of the company’s development strategy through 2030. To help achieve this and improve innovation, Gazprom Neft’s research center regularly partners with Russian universities on joint projects. The company also partners with technology firms, including Yandex. In 2019 it partnered with Skolkovo to create an R&D center at the technology hub, which will develop software for the automation of business processes in the oil and gas industry.
- Skolkovo: Most AI research and development in Russia is funneled through the Skolkovo Foundation. Founded under Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, the foundation’s campus has become a special economic zone and major institutional site for funding and hosting technology start-ups. It also hosts a physical plant for young developers and a coordination entity providing support for integrating start-ups into wider international markets. Skolkovo has hosted several professional and amateur competitions, trade shows, and conferences that support Russian domestic AI start-ups. These venues are particularly important for incentivizing innovation, publishing new research and products, and facilitating connections with programs abroad. The foundation also provides domestic infrastructure that is rentable or sharable that many AI start-ups and new platforms rely on.
Military AI in Russia
In line with the global trend, Russian military leaders and strategists have become increasingly interested in the military applications of artificial intelligence. In March 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a 10-point AI development plan. The plan outlines public-private cooperation and calls attention to the research and development steps as well as the agencies and departments needed to make that cooperation work.
From a tactical perspective, the Russian military uses AI to manage large volumes of data and short decision timeframes. For example, there have been several initiatives to use for AI in the design of Russian fighter aircrafts – to control the flow information available to pilots and simplify decision making in combat. Additionally, Russia uses AI and automation in its air and missile defense systems. The processing power of AI is essential to increasing the efficiency of integrated air defense systems, which monitor, detect, and respond to aerospace attacks.
From a national security perspective, the Russian military is concerned with the potential dangers of increasingly sophisticated AI information warfare tools. This concern largely stems from the Russian view of information confrontation as one of the fundamental ways in which countries complete. While information warfare itself is common in public military discussions and journals, AI is not. There are two possible reasons for this. First, the use of AI in information warfare is highly technical and less apt to simplified descriptions. Second, the offensive and defensive aspects of the military cyber domain remain highly classified.
China has become an important partner for Russia in the technology sector. In recent years there has been an increasing alignment of interests and security concerns between the two countries. Additionally, the US has levied technology sanctions against Russia and China that has sparked the desire for both countries to develop indigenous replacements for US chips, operating systems, and other technologies.
Russian-Chinese cooperation in AI, and technology more broadly, has been largely led by the Chinese company Huawei. In 2017, the company opened its first research institutes in Moscow and St Petersburg. The Chinese company’s first major investment in Russian AI began in 2019, when it bought the rights to facial recognition technology developed by the Russian AI startup Vocord. Later in 2019, Huawei signed a deal with Skolkovo and announced plans to build, by 2025, an AI ecosystem in Russia that 20 universities, over 100 software companies, and more than 100,000 AI developers. Huawei’s cooperation projects on AI are based on a strategy for the Russian market called TIGER – technology, industry, growth, ecosystem and reliably.
Similarly, Russian-South Korean cooperation in AI is headed by Samsung. Established in 2018, the Samsung AI Center Moscow plays a key role in cooperation. Its goal is to harness Russia’s expertise in AI, largely building off the Samsung Research and Development center, which began operations in Moscow in 1993. Main research areas of the AI center include computer vision, robotics, and vehicle automation. Its advancements in vision analysis are particularly impressive for their ability to turn a single still image into a video that mimic personal facial expressions and movements. Samsung has also set up an educational center called the Samsung IT Academy, which has developed a set of courses in AI, the IoT, and mobile app development. The center currently has a presence at 34 Russian universities.
Russia-United States cooperation in AI has been largely limited to the academic sector, primarily MIT, with very few commercial ventures. The main AI cooperation initiative between the two countries was developed through the Skolkovo Foundation and MIT. In 2011, Skolkovo’s Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) partnered with MIT to “cultivate a new generation of researchers and entrepreneurs, promote advanced scientific knowledge and foster innovative technology to address critical issues facing Russia and the world.” Since then, the partnership has maintained steady progress, albeit with slight hinderance from poor Russian-US relations. The partnership has worked through four programs, with the fourth and apparently final project currently ongoing.
Although Russia had a late start to the development of AI compared to other world powers, it has made significant advancements over the past several years. This is largely due to the national AI initiatives that began in 2018, the large and well-funded Russian AI ecosystem that carries out those initiates, and the international cooperation that makes the ecosystem more vibrant. As artificial intelligence continues to develop and gain more widespread implementation around the globe, it will be important to keep up with the state of AI in Russia.