Wed, Jan 23, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Winning the AI arms race

While Western democracies have traditionally been more adept at tapping innovation, China and Russia could have an advantage by being willing to remove the human component from decisionmaking

By Peter Apps  /  Reuters

The US and its allies are still researching and building their own autonomous weapons. In October last year, Microsoft quietly announced it intended to sell the Pentagon whatever advanced AI systems it needed to “build a strong defense.” US Air Force leaders say its highly classified future long-range strike aircraft, designed to replace the B-2 stealth bomber, will be able to operate both with and without crew.

Western militaries are also plowing growing resources into unmanned trucks and other supply vehicles, hoping to perform many more “dirty, dull and dangerous” battlefield tasks without risking human personnel.

These dynamics will become much more complex with the growing use of drone swarms, in which multiple unmanned vehicles control themselves. When it comes to drones fighting drones, Western policymakers are generally happy to let unmanned systems make their own decisions, but when it comes to killing, US Department of Defense policy requires that a human must remain “in the loop.”

However, that might become ever harder to manage, particularly if an enemy’s automated systems are making such judgments at much faster than human speed.

By the early 2020s, Chinese scientists expect to be operating large unmanned and potentially armed submarines in the world’s oceans, aimed at enemy forces in disputed areas such as the South China Sea. Such vessels could potentially travel vast distances and remain concealed for long periods of time — China says a prototype drone “underwater glider” completed a record 141-day, 3,619km voyage last month.

For now, Chinese researchers say any decision for such vessels to conduct attacks would still be made by human commanders — but that might not always remain the case.

In January last year, the Pentagon reported Russia was building and looking to operate its own large nuclear-powered unmanned submarines, likely capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Both Moscow and Beijing are also prioritizing unmanned robot tanks, with Russia testing its latest version on the ground in Syria. Such systems could dramatically complicate battlefield targeting decisions for Western commanders in any conflict, making it unclear whether individual vehicles or vessels contained human beings. Mistakes could start or dramatically escalate wars.

In recruiting their 31 teenagers for the Beijing Institute of Technology, those managing selection reportedly looked for “willingness to fight.” With technology this untested — and so potentially destructive — that may prove a very dangerous trait to prioritize.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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