For most of the 20th century, military researchers were intent on perfecting nuclear weapon and reconnaissance technology. In recent times, the US army’s research and development operations have been heavily focused on the advent of new Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology.
Autonomy is a cornerstone of the US military’s new research platform, and the government plans to allocate over USD$188 billion in 2020 for increased global spending on automated robotics. Last month, they announced the ambitious JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) program, which will build a cloud computing system that serves US forces all over the world behind a desk in Virginia to soldiers on the ground in Takhar, Afghanistan.
The contract is worth almost USD$1066 BN over 10 years, which is why numerous tech companies are keen to sign a contract with JEDI. Almost all major tech firms except Google are in the running for a contract with JEDI. One of the major objectives for the company is its desire to weaponize AI tech through “algorithmic warfare”. This would entail plugging in the military’s data into a modern cloud platform and using machine-learning services to analyze the data. JEDI is expected to help the pentagon realize its AI ambitions.
Since the announcement, much of JEDI’s media attention has come from fears of autonomous weapons or “terminator slaughter-bots” being developed by the US government. However, according to most researchers, this type of technology is far from being practical yet, and the US military maintains its stance that ‘humans decide when to kill’.
Nonetheless, the army is researching multiple projects that are just as significant to the future of modern warfare.
New autonomous tank and aircraft models
Similar to car companies’ autonomous vehicle projects, militaries around the world are taking steps to foster unmanned fighter jets and combat tanks.
According to Vice News, one type of initiative that’s expected to come into use next fall is the ‘leader follower’ technology. This system would allow a single manned truck to have an unlimited number of autonomous trucks follow it in a convoy. Almost half of the military fatalities result from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). By limiting the number of manned tanks, the number of IED casualties will similarly reduce.
This technology is comprised of a combination of numerous sensors that are programmed to follow a moving target in front of it. The tanks are equipped with cameras that function as ‘eyes’, a radar that calculates time, and a ‘lidar’ that works like a radar but sends out a light signal. All of this sensory tech helps the unmanned tank respond to the world around them. However, like most current AI models, it’s still has a soldier to help navigate through the tank’s surroundings.
The US military is also developing new unmanned aircrafts such as the X-47B. The aircraft’s hardware technology provides ten times the range of a conventional fighter jet, and will be able to take off in all weather conditions, fly in large numbers, and refuel in midair.
A US Department of defence report reads:
“While admittedly futuristic in vision, one can conceive of scenarios where UUV’s sense, track, identify, target, and destroy an enemy-all autonomously. It envisions unmanned systems seamlessly operating with manned systems while gradually reducing the degree of human control and decision-making required for the unmanned portion of the force structure.”
The design has been specifically targeted for use in the pacific after the reputation of the US military took a major hit. A report claimed that Chinese military tech, which now has hypersonic missiles, had surpassed the military capabilities of the USA. Although the secrets behind Chinese weapons are often hidden, they exhibited some of their new models at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Dubai.
The emerging superpower now has a CH-5 drone, an autonomous aircraft vehicle that can fly continuously for 12,000 miles. Analysts claim that Chinese breakthroughs in artificial intelligence could see a group of its CH-15’s functioning as a swarm of autonomous drone strikers. In addition, AI military research appears to also have strong foundations in Russia and the UK, indicating this is not exclusively an American innovation.
However, there are operational concerns with AI fighter jets and tanks. These weapons can be hacked and behave unpredictably when faced with unforeseen circumstances. Many experts have pointed to the failure of the Patriot missile defence system during the Gulf War as evidence that the AI software is prone to an array of unpredictable malfunctions.
Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robots at the University of Sheffield, told Vice earlier this year:
“Autonomous weapons systems are entirely computer controlled, with all of the problems inherent with using computers. The problem is when everybody, or a number of states, has them, we cannot know how they interact with one another. These are unknown algorithms fighting each other, and that very fact makes them unpredictable and against the laws of war.”
AI capabilities in target identification
The implications of these AI technologies are far reaching and could affect the ways in which wars are conducted. While an autonomous “war robot” might be innovative, it doesn’t add much value beyond the protection of personnel. In an era where the enemy’s identity is often vague, it becomes difficult to conduct bombing or airstrike operations. With the enemy’s identity obscured, specific targeting has become more useful in the field of modern warfare.
AI and machine-learning are giant assets in this context. Machine Learning can automate the task of confirming the enemy’s identity and location.
The US government’s Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (commonly known as Maven) is already implementing these new strategies. Maven (US military’s “pathfinder” AI tech initiative) has previously been in the news after an employee revolt at Google over the company’s involvement with the software.
The pathfinder tech uses machine learning to scan drone footage to identify individuals, vehicles and buildings that might be worth targeting. According to the Pentagon, it aims to develop and integrate “computer-vision algorithms needed to help military and civilian analysts encumbered by the sheer volume of full motion video data that the DoD collections every day in support of counter insurgency and counterterrorism operations.”
Before Maven came along, analysts often had watched full-motion video footage for up to 11 hours at a time, claims LT Gen Jack Shanahan. Maven’s software automates that work, and relays its findings to military personnel.
Thus far, the software has been a massive success. It’s been deployed in the Middle East and Africa to over six combat locations. In the software’s second phase, the objective is to load the program onto the drones themselves in order to locate targets in real time. This phase would supposedly lead to “actionable intelligence and decision-quality insights at speed.”
Criticism and future of AI
Research into these new technologies has not been without controversy. In an open letter from 2015 ‘International Joint Conference on AI’, thousands of scientists and tech experts called for a flat ban on AI-controlled lethal weaponry. The list of signatories included reputed tech icons such as Steve Wozniack, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk.
The letter read:
“The Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is-practically if not legally-feasible within years not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and unclear weapons.”
Operations such as JEDI seem to represent the ‘revolution in warfare,’ which the three-year old letter addressed. Patrick Lin, a professor at Polytechnic State University claimed that “a lot of people are rightfully skeptical that it would ever advance to the point where it has anything called full autonomy. No one is really an expert on predicting the future.”
Innovations such as autonomous fighter jets and AI drone tech capabilities are a stepping stone in the direction to further AI development. Algorithms may not be pulling the trigger for robots, but the current AI software is already enough to usher in a “revolution” in the field of modern warfare.
However, according to researchers, the upside to AI technologies is diminshing casualties while ushering in a more precise combat strategy. The debate will only grow as military AI tech-capabilities advance in scope and sophistication.