Robot brains will fight the machine wars of the future

The US and its allies are starting to talk about the implications of using artificial intelligence (AI) in military systems. It is clear the rise of the machines needs to be controlled.

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  1. Garry White

In the future, major decisions taken in the theatre of war are likely to be made by machines.

The decision to shoot a missile or drop a bomb will be made electronically, eliminating the flawed human mind from any decision-making process. Systems based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) will perform many of the tasks that are currently the responsibility of humans.

These robot ‘brains will gather and assess real-time data, scrutinising facts to decide the next course of action. This could ultimately lead to full weapons systems – even nuclear warheads – being controlled by an unemotional, independent box of electronic tricks. Clearly, the ethical considerations are immense.

This week, officials from 13 US-allied countries met online to try and figure out how they could use AI and machine learning across their military and defence capabilities, but in such a way as to blunt the numerous potential downsides.

The meeting was organised by the US Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) on behalf of the Defense Department’s AI Center of Excellence. It aims to find a way to integrate rapid paces of technological change with a solid foundation of ethical rules and regulations. It will also share knowledge and develop unified processes and data between its members. Strong relationships will be essential to ensure its long-term success and America’s allies will understand this too.

Not only is this initiative important for the safety and security of future generations, it is also politically significant today. Washington has clashed with many allies during the Trump presidency on numerous geopolitical issues – even raising trade barriers on Canada, Mexico, the European Union and Japan. But managing the future of AI in warfare is an easy banner on which to unite.

Robots with brains

AI is concerned with the development of smart machines that can perform complex tasks typically associated with human intelligence. AI can be used for information gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance – but could also be connected to live weapons systems. If machines are handed the ability to make decisions that could result in death and destruction, the global security implications are enormous.

This week’s summit was the first to try and manage this technological progress from an ethical point of view. Participating countries included military delegations from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Israel, Japan, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Sweden and the UK.

“We want it to be almost like a problem-solving forum,” Stephanie Culberson, director of international AI Policy at the JAIC, noted. She said that the meetings were designed to be informal and collaborative – unlike the usual military-to-military engagements which are highly formal. The forum will also act as conduct for sharing technical information – with consistent standards applied between these allies on the management of data – the lifeblood of machine learning and AI.

China was obviously not present at the ethical discussion. AI is another frontier field where progress is being accelerated by the ideological clash between Washington and Beijing. Each country wants to attain global leadership in the technology that will drive the economies of tomorrow and the AI arms race is a major battlefront.

China’s rapid success in this area is concerning. Beijing’s authoritarian government uses AI and citizens’ data in ways that are impossible in democratic countries because they would violate privacy and civil liberty laws. Facial recognition technologies used for the surveillance and detention of Muslim ethnic minorities in its Western Xinjiang province have also been a drive of its innovation in this area. Courts in the country have even started using AI-generated assessments to help generate sentencing decisions.

China declared in 2017 that it wanted to be the world leader in AI by 2030. While the US still leads in absolute terms, China has thrown tens of billions of dollars on its AI programmes and is directing companies in the specific areas that the central government deems a priority. America’s “modest” lead over China in AI remains, but that is mainly because of its advanced semiconductor sector, according to a study by the US think tank, the Rand Corporation. US leadership in AI is therefore dependent on its leadership in semiconductor wafers – and China recently unveiled its plan to leapfrog Silicon Valley in this area too. China will specifically write this aim into its 14th five-year plan.

Central planning has some advantages

The Rand report warned that Beijing’s use of central planning has given it an advantage in its attempt to beat Silicon Valley through its ability to pull the strings on corporate business decisions. A major advantage is also found in the country’s vast population. China’s population is about four times that of the US – and AI developers are more likely to get their hands on vast and complete sets of data that drive AI development. In the privacy-loving west, researchers are unlikely to be given such a useful development tool.

“We should leverage our socialist system’s advantage in concentrating resources to get major undertakings done and achieve breakthroughs in key and core technologies,” China’s President Xi Jinping said last month.

The JAIC meeting held this week could provide a good foundation for the west to compete with China on AI, if all goes to plan. Pooling clean data sets between countries will give researchers information at a better scale – and global information gathering can be standardised to manage the data efficiency and provide it in useful, clean formats. It is also a forum to discuss the dangerous ethical issues which will certainly emerge. But, following a few turbulent years between friends, the fact America’s allies can easily rally to Washington's call on this issue is positive for the free world.

A version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

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