News & Analysis

Who Wants N-Power? Countries Invest in AI to Win Wars

Looks like countries are back in an arms race, though this time round the focus is on start-ups and their work in the world of AI

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This quote from the Bhagavad Gita was made famous in July 1945 by Robert Oppenheimer, the man known as the father of the atomic bomb. Now, exactly 77 years later, the world appears headed towards another self-destruction drive, though this time it’s based on big data, artificial intelligence and automation. 

A report published in the MIT Technology Review says the military battle in Ukraine has added urgency to the drive towards AI-led tools on the battlefield and it is the start-up world that is gaining the big bucks from this move. The report said both the UK and Germany have added considerably to their spends on this domain. 

Defense exports isn’t what we are talking about here. For, even a traditionally non-serious actor like India has witnessed considerable growth over the past decade where its defense exports grew from Rs.2059 crore in 2015-16 to Rs.8,434 crore in 2020-21 and Rs.13,000 crore in 2021-22. And guess who was the biggest importer? It was the United States. 

So, why bring this point up? Quite simply it ties in with the MIT Tech Review point of view, which is that global defense spends will increasingly shift towards non-traditional weapons, which will then be licensed out to smaller players in the arms business. On June 30, NATO had announced that it was creating a $1 billion innovation fund for this purpose. 

The fund would invest in early-stage startups and venture capital funds that would develop priority technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data processing and automation. Besides, the United States, the UK has launched a new AI strategy for defense while Germany has set aside half a billion dollars for research and AI. 

The article quotes Kenneth Payne, a part of the defense studies research at King’s College in London who believes that war is indeed a catalyst for change. It’s true that the war in Ukraine is doing to NATO countries what the cold war era did in the past. The article points to startups such as Palantir that is hoping to cash in on the next round of arms race. 

Which brings us to the issue of ethics in the use of AI, a topic that seems to have become less shrill in the recent years, in spite of the fact that the threat is more real today and restrictions and regulations remain as remote as ever. Would the have-nots be fighting for their lives against machines of the future? 

Of course, one need’nt go deep into history to perceive how the association between technology and the military has changed. In 2018, Google was forced to pull out of a Pentagon project that aimed to enhance image recognition for drone strikes. Why? Because its employees were vociferous in protest. 

The move also resulted in some top scientists of the world working in the AI domain pledging not to work on any project that plays with lives, human or otherwise. In fact, they went one step ahead and asked governments and leaders of the world to create a future with strong global norms, regulations and laws against lethan autonomous weapons. 

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to play an increasing role in military systems. There is an urgent opportunity and necessity for citizens, policymakers, and leaders to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI. In this light, we the undersigned agree that the decision to take a human life should never be delegated to a machine,” they said

However, where do we see ourselves today? Silicon Valley appears closer to militaries of the world and even India, which has always preached no-first-use, is investing heavily in drone technologies and other measures to make future wars more mechanised. 

The reasons aren’t far to see. Companies working on AI claim their technology can do everything – from helping with HR functions to processing data from satellites and recognising patterns that help soldiers hasten decisions on the battlefield. So, you recognize images via software, set drones to survey the territory or even attack and help soldiers to fight and flee. 

The MIT Tech article says many of these startup make grandoise claims with little success which means that militaries are forced to look for more without ever taking a break. One sees several announcements, little follow-ups and millions of dollars chasing technology that is yet to see the light of the day – at least that’s what we are told. 

Of course, there are those that believe that all this AI talk is mere rhetoric that could potentially position the NATO as several steps ahead of the others – a technique that was used to good effect during the Cold War. So, where’s the problem with this? AI adoption gets an air of inevitablity amongst the politicians who conveniently ditch the ethical complexities on grounds that this is the only way to stay ahead of the arms race. 

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