NATO risks being left behind by rivals in race towards AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) also known as machine intelligence (MI) is when intellect is displayed by a computer system (or machine), in contrast with the natural intelligence (NI) displayed by humans and other animals. Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are enabling new military capabilities that will be highly disruptive to military strategies. The effects of these capabilities will be felt across the whole spectrum of military requirements – from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to offense/defence balances and even on to nuclear weapons systems themselves.

What does this really mean, especially when you move beyond the rhetoric of revolutionary change and think about the real-world consequences of potential applications of artificial intelligence to militaries? Artificial intelligence is not a weapon. Instead, artificial intelligence, from a military perspective, is an enabler, much like electricity and the combustion engine. Thus, the effect of artificial intelligence on military power and international conflict will depend on specific applications of AI for militaries and policymakers.

The potential promise of AI, including its ability to improve the speed and accuracy of everything from logistics to battlefield planning and to help improve human decision making, is driving militaries around the world to accelerate their research into and development of AI military applications.

The advent of AI could fundamentally change the character of warfare, resulting in a transformation from today’s “informatised” ways of warfare to future “intelligentised” warfare, in which AI will be critical to military capability. AI can provide a disproportionate advantage to otherwise technologically disadvantaged enemies as it is a disruptive technique. Adopting AI tools in defence enhances the processing and utilisation of data which in turn improves the speed of decision-making on the battlefield.

The consequences of AI on the world will likely exceed current military capabilities and radically transform the future of war. Advances in military applications of AI are already reality, and AI is already being deployed, both by NATO and some western countries, but also by very advanced scientific programs developed in China, Russia and North Korea.

The Chinese military and China’s defence industry have been pursuing significant investments in robotics, swarming, and other applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). While difficult to evaluate the sophistication of these emerging capabilities, initial analysis shows indications that China has progressed towards weapons systems that may possess a range of autonomy. These advances by China could impact the current military balance, while potentially exacerbating threats to global security and strategic stability as the great power rivalry intensifies.

North Korea is also pursuing autonomous technology for both military and economic purposes. From what can be discerned from behind their veil of great secrecy, it seems that North Korea is researching improvements into detection of intrusive cyber operations via artificial neural networks and genetic algorithms. In addition to defensive capabilities, there are also concerns that North Korea will develop the ability to conduct AI-enabled cyber-attacks.

In the near future, Russian Defence Ministry experts hope to develop AI capable of operations approximating human brain function. The incorporation of AI into semi-autonomous and autonomous ground as well as air vehicles can potentially help improve force protection, increase situational awareness, and ensure freedom of manoeuvre and movement in complex urban terrain.

As nations outside of NATO are investing heavily into AI, it is essential that all NATO allies and partners make efforts to evaluate the range of short, medium, and long-term applications of AI in warfare. Part of this will require nations to train and cultivate human resources into military applications of AI. The talented young generation needs to be targeted to ensure that NATO is not left behind, and that NATO can create a potent AI capable force.

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