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Wars have traditionally been declared — and fought — by humans. Now a rising chorus is warning that AI is set to radically remake global conflict, and even potentially how and when governments use force.
AI will likely to have as big an impact on military affairs as the invention of nuclear weapons, computers, or the airplane, according to Gregory Allen, adjunct fellow in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security. What remains to be seen is how countries will use it.
“I would like to think the US and other nations have learned that delegating complete strategic autonomy to a computer system is thoroughly unwise,” Allen told Seeker. “Computer systems upon which everything depends can make mistakes.”
Indeed, some are already voicing concerns that advances in AI could have dangerous consequences.
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On Monday, Elon Musk, the billionaire tech-entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, tweeted that competition in AI among nations will be the “most likely” cause of World War III, and that AI could even decide to start that conflict itself “if it decides that a preemptive strike is [the] most probable path to victory.”
Musk’s warning followed a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told a group of students on September 1 that he believes mastery of AI could result in no less than world domination.
“The one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world,” Putin remarked.
Putin envisioned a future in which wars are fought by vast armies of drones in a variety of forms, from tanks and fighter jets to helicopter gunships.
“Wars may end when all the drones on one side are destroyed by the drones on the other side,” he said. “After that, it’s senseless to keep fighting. You can only surrender.”
Putin’s comments weren’t idle speculation. Russia’s Military Industrial Committee has approved plans to derive 30 percent of Russia’s combat power from remote controlled and AI-enabled robotic platforms by 2030.
By contrast the United States recently renewed a policy prohibiting autonomous weapons from making the decision to use lethal force independently.
It remains to be seen whether other countries will follow America’s example, according to Allen.
“That policy is significantly ahead of what other major military powers currently have on the books,” Allen said.
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Other nations have also signaled that AI development is a key strategic concern. In July, China released a roadmap detailing its ambitions to become the global leader in AI technology by 2030.
China's plan, a translation of which was published by the think tank New America, aims to "strengthen a new generation of AI technology as a strong support to command and decision-making, military deduction, defense equipment, and other applications," as well as "promote all kinds of AI technology to become quickly embedded in the field of national defense innovation."
Putin compared the disruptive potential of AI to nuclear power and pledged that if Russia became the global leader in AI, it would share the technology with other countries.
“Artificial intelligence isn’t just the future of Russia, it’s the future of all humanity,” Putin said. “There are colossal possibilities, and there are also threats that are hard to predict now.”
Musk responded by tweeting a link to Putin’s remarks, which said, “It begins….”
Musk has warned of the rise of killer robots for years. In August, he joined 116 corporate tech leaders in publishing an open letter calling for the United Nations to ban autonomous weapons.
“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend," the executives wrote. "These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”
Not all tech leaders agree. Musk has feuded openly with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose attitude on the subject is far more sanguine.
"With AI especially, I'm really optimistic," Zuckerberg said during a Facebook Live broadcast in July. "I think that people who are naysayers and kind of try to drum up these doomsday scenarios… I just, I don't understand it. I think it's really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible.”
Musk shot back on Twitter, “I've talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited.”
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Researchers studying the issue point to a wide variety of ways artificial intelligence could change the nature of conflict.
Allen of the Center for a New American Security was lead author of a 132-page report published in July arguing that the impact of artificial intelligence will be deeply transformative.
For example, as costs drop precipitously for drones, militaries may produce vast swarms of small, cheap artificially intelligent attack robots.
“For the price of a single high-end aircraft, a military could acquire one million drones,” the report says. “If the robotics market sustains current price decline trends, in the future that figure might become closer to one billion.”
The proliferation of millions of smaller, artificially intelligent drones, the report’s authors warned, threatens US national security.
“How would an aircraft carrier battlegroup respond to an attack from millions of aerial kamikaze explosive drones?” the report asked. “Some of the major platforms and strategies upon which US national security currently relies might be rendered obsolete.”
AI-enabled technology may give weak states and non-state actors access to new long-range precision strike capabilities. AI could also enhance fake audio and video recordings, undermining trust in institutions, or hand governments vastly superior methods for surveilling their own populations, according to the report.
Artificially intelligent hackers could emerge as superior cyber warriors.
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Last year, DARPA, the visionary research arm of the US Department of Defense, hosted an automated hacking competition that pitted AI systems against each other for the first time. Bots designed by seven different teams sought weaknesses in each other’s systems while defending their own against attacks.
Global spending on military robotics in the form of unmanned vehicles tripled between 2000 and 2015, according to the Boston Consulting Group, from $2.4 billion to $7.5 billion and is expected to double again to $16.5 billion by 2025.
How far countries will go in trusting AI systems to make decisions for them remains to be seen.
“I advocate keeping artificial intelligence away from the nuclear arsenal,” Allen said. “To me, that seems like a no-brainer. But we don’t know if other countries will see it as a no-brainer.”
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