23 July 2020

Artificial intelligence – from Skyborg to Cyborg

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The “Defence and Security Monitor” has lately published a series of materials related to the use of the latest technologies in a war, including the artificial intelligence. It is an approach which gives the DSM readers the possibility to identify possible ways a future conflict might take place in, a “future war” wherein victory will be rather of those who will have the latest computers, qualified personnel to fight through the computational networks, than of those who will have best tanks and missiles. It is a war wherein online manipulation will become the new norm and where the attack will not come from a visible enemy, placed on a predictable azimuth, but from the dark world of “Internet of Things”. Will artificial intelligence be the solution to win the supremacy for states and entities that still believe that the right of force is still a priority?

Image source: Profimedia

 How did we get here? What’s next?

Although it is a controversial catchphrase, artificial intelligence becomes more and more a central topic for public debates, for technology-related researches and, lately, a way for providing security for those who can transfer to a computerized third party an increasingly part of the fight responsibilities.

Indeed, the intelligence of a car is, by definition, in a direct relation with the intelligence it should supposedly be emitted from the one that projects it, and its use in war actions might be considered as not being part of this area. However, the extremely quick advance of military technologies has required its use to be exclusively related to the response to offensive actions of an enemy that’s highly militarily equipped but also related to the deterrence strikes.

How did we get here?

Maybe because the computers’ development was exponential, since the beginning of the 70’s of the past century, doubling its capacities every each 18 months.

Maybe because the population became more and more dependent on the online information, consuming them in inconceivable quantities.

Maybe because the number of tools connected to the internet is now four or five time bigger than world’s population. In two years, the volume of information processed online will be twice bigger and the only technology which allows a certain filtration and collation of this data torrent is artificial intelligence.

There is no surprise that the computers’ production and, afterwards, digitalized technologies had a linear increase and that their capacities has lately developed a lot. It achieved unimaginable performances. A series of studies anticipates the creation of a computer that, in the middle of this decade, will be as advanced as the human mind and, only 20 years later, one to have the capacities of most of all world’s inhabitants. In other words, during the life of most of Terra’s current inhabitants. And that means tomorrow.

This development affects even the aspects related to military training, the way military operations are conducted or related to ensuring the security of a state. Artificial intelligence is not manifested only through a practically unlimited capacity to analyze data and to offer the best solutions. The developments were made also in fields asking for specific acts, strategies and intentions coverage actions or ones to fraud the enemy. The artificial intelligence allows the concurrent training with a human instructor, taking over his abilities, including the personalized ones and, after going through a number of attempts, even overcoming his capacities.

A flight simulator that has such technology might create, for the pilot that is going through the training, some challenges like knowing his intentions. In a real fight, the pilot would lose all the air battles it would have with his “artificial” counterpart.

But artificial intelligence has also applications which create a parallel reality that modify the images taken by satellites by creating video materials with events or which allow the elaboration of parallel scenarios with the events. Redeveloping individual or collective identities and placing them online is a possibility especially used in the economical and political fields, but also in criminal activities.

Many of these “accomplishments” are possible also thanks to the fact that we are rather tempted to believe false information than to believe the truth. The fake news spread six times quicker than the true ones, that’s why the sensational and conspiring virtual realities are more attractive for many of us than the normal truths that are officially communicated.

Maybe the most up-to-date use of artificial intelligence is the human surveillance capacity which exists in some states and locations, mostly the big cities, which allow the functioning of a strict social control, through the scanning of video cameras that practically cover the entire urban area.

The algorithm does not only apply for individual situations, when a threat is ahead, but for the entire community, where each individual is behaviourally scanned. It creates an individual study which allows the positioning of the “target” on a graphic which includes the “positive” and “negative” activities, their level and the social trust level. This behavioural “criminal file” qualifies the individual for a profession or another, for public positions, for foreign trips.

It is already clear, I think, that we are talking about China, where the social surveillance technology reached a unique level on the international plan.

From the first ten big cities covered by video cameras, 8 are in China, the first one, Chongqing, is a 15 million-inhabitants metropolis which had, in 2019, 168 video cameras for 1000 people. London is the sixth city and Atlanta is the 10th (with 16 cameras for 1000 people, ten times less!).

Artificial intelligence, general surveillance, other uses

One of the results of this explosive technological development in the virtual space is the fact that the world, as we know it, as we have learned it is structured, will cease to exist. Of course, such a future is not exactly what some of us have expected, but its almost dystopian form (deformed, apocalyptic even totalitarian etc.) cannot be stopped.

Some applications might come from institutionalized places (FBI already has photos collected online which can offer information about around 400 million people), other from private or corporatist ones (Facebook has a special scanning application which can allow them to find out personal data, by any user, about any of the 3 billion FB users).

Using the "civilian" model of using drones to create giant games of light and aerial graffiti, the military discovered that "artificial intelligence" allows the coordination of a swarm of drones that perform manoeuvres similar to human combat forces, but with destructive and lethal force that’s clearly superior. Of course, the easiness such systems can be adapted and programmed with can also be a disadvantage in a world where the opponent, even the one with the least possibilities, has access to these technologies. During a recent visit to Mosul, the head of the Joint Special Operations Command/JSOC, General Raymond Thomas, saw a drone, discovered in a captured warehouse, modified by the terrorist group ISIS to transport and use a grenade launcher with a 40 mm calibre.

Not many people know this, but for most of the Iraqi military campaign to retake ISIS-occupied territory, this terrorist group has "benefited" from some air superiority over Iraqi forces through the extensive use of drones, the daily number of Iraqi soldiers killed in their attacks exceeding 30.

To prevent loosing the initiative in this area, there is both competition between the main military powers, which develop their technologies and doctrines for the new type of conflict, but also between state and private entities, the latter usually terrorists, to not allow them achieve autonomous destructive capabilities.

But to stay among the first ones you need investment. China has given the green light to a $ 150 billion artificial intelligence development plan. Over the next few years, Beijing aims to become an "innovative center" in this area. The model is followed by both Russia and the United States.

The drones’ production goes hand in hand with the improvement of their abilities to act as a "team", the tests carried out so far indicating the possibility that increasingly complex and numerous drone formations will be able to dominate the future battlefield, needing only minimal inputs from human operators.

As communications are carried out in a cyberspace, there are concerns, as with any use of this technology, about the protection and data transmission channels, protection of operators. Thus, this virtual conflict is carried out not only in the actual combat space, but also for the network control that ensures the system’s functioning.

This new dimension of military technologies brings a series of changes in the doctrine of the use of forces, in the operations planning, in how they are executed, in the provision of technological support.

Perhaps the most important effects on future military developments are the following:

● the threshold for the use of force will be lower and lower, the operations in the virtual space not being framed in the classical limitations that block the use of certain weapons and ammunition;

● offensive actions are preferred over defensive ones, so preventive actions could become the norm for future confrontations, even if in physical terms, they will not have the massiveness of standard operations;

● the arms race will be encouraged, the accessibility to certain technologies, not always the latest concepts and innovations, creating the illusion of democratizing the access to them, which will try to take advantage of even the minor actors of international relations.

In the fields speculated for the use of artificial intelligence (hoping that we are still at this level of assumptions) is the possibility of using this technology to control and command the nuclear arsenal. The need for an immediate and coordinated response seems to dictate such an approach, but entering a field where the absence of human control can lead to incidents with irreparable consequences calls for restraint.

Also, the transfer of fighting skills from citizens who defend their homeland, territory, etc. to surrogate entities, modifies the affective architecture that connects the individual to the community he belongs he. The individual is considered to be less effective when it comes to its protection, defensive and offensive strategies will be dictated by technological and sequential opportunities, rather than public emotional accumulations. Clausewitz's "citizen soldier" could be replaced by the operator who directs, not entirely, the "surrogate fighter", efficient and operating within the moral framework of "Jus ad Bellum" (laws of war) ​​only if the technology inserted somewhere a protocol of restraint against such pre-established cases. Otherwise, the drone is not influenced after seeing blood and does not make the cross sign (or similar) after performing the mission.

Is Cyborg following the Skyborg?

Reaching this threshold, of the possibility of artificial intelligence’s use in solving disputes that states and entities face in this contemporary confrontational environment we find ourselves in is, of course, a technological success, but not necessarily one that brings us peace.

For almost ten years now, weapons, for now the individual ones, can be made on 3D printers, and the projects are public. In the terrorist attack carried out on a synagogue in the city of Halle, Germany, on October 9, 2019, the attacker had on him, but fortunately, he could not use, a weapon made through this process.

But this is only a minor example.

Aviation squadrons could fly and perform fight missions, with a single pilot equipped with the necessary technology, the rest of the aircraft being, in fact, fighter drones. The US Air Force has launched a program to create a"Skyborg” prototype, a drone capable of complex and autonomous actions, achievable in 2023.

The technology could reach the point where it could allow normal, untrained citizens, but equipped with suits well equipped with gadgets and sensors, to fly complex fighter jets they board for the first time in. In fact, there were already experiments to that end, DARPA/Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, announcing, a few years ago, that it was possible for a paralyzed person to drive an extremely complex device, such as F-35 , only by using neural impulses, so he did not even need joysticks to control it.

So where are we?

Most likely, we are at a turning point in our development, a moment when technological developments seem to be faster than our ability to adapt to their use. And it's not just our "fault":

● the development of new technologies is exponential, there is no time to pursue new innovations, inventions, adaptations that emerge at a speed that requires other technologies to be integrated into what we know and can manage as human beings;

● Accelerated development allows the elaboration of equipment at lower and lower prices, thus making these new products valid for mass distribution. This proliferation takes place both vertically and horizontally. This means that there is an increasing access to these products for state institutions, and for communities, and for non-state entities, not all driven by best intentions, and for individuals, not all of them, moral and well-intentioned;

● Of course, the “innovations” belongs to the strong states, but even this does not last very long, the products gradually becoming accessible to others. The period this monopoly is maintained in is also becoming shorter and shorter;

● the insertion of artificial intelligence in all aspects of social life - through dependence on data and information provided online, the robotic equipment we use, online services we perform "remotely" - has deep effects on social relationships;

● and regardless of how much it seems that there is a certain democracy in artificial intelligence’s distribution, this is not the case, only two states, China and the United States, being, at this moment, the most important states when it comes to the development of new technologies. Besides these two there are, of course, a series of "performers" in distinct fields, one of them being Israel, maybe South Korea, maybe Russia, but not that much European representation;

● the possession of artificial intelligence ensures the basis of a technological autonomy, which can also be used in the national security field. Therefore, the states that possess this technology will continue to invest in it with new responsibilities, as I said, even with those conducting military operations. This will not make the future world a less confrontational space than it is today, perhaps cleaner in terms of conflict ecology, but also potentially much easier to destroy;

● therefore, probably the need to identify a system of global control and monitoring of these technologies’ proliferation, would not be a bad idea. more and more voices, certainly not those of the main combatants, thus call for the establishment of a set of rules to ensure the functioning of a predictable and governable international environment, even given this technological explosion. Entering the unknown field of the possibilities ,opened up by the capabilities of artificial intelligence, should be regulated, with assumed rules, but such an approach, in a bipolar world of competition, is extremely difficult to achieve. 

The artificial intelligence, although it can be defined as a concept of a superior technological level, is not something that keeps its neutrality. Even the fact that it can integrate a volume of data which is beyond the possibilities of the human brain is at least a disadvantage, if not a risk. Initially, the dangers of this situation were already revealed, for example, during the recent electoral campaigns, when processing a huge volume of online data has allowed the elaboration of a social preferences image, sympathies, antipathies etc, manipulable through the tools of this technology.

In a possible conflict, where the use of artificial intelligence would be mostly used, it will be difficult to reveal what’s virtual and what’s real among the threats and risks which seem to exist at some point. Will the decision over the development of a conflict be made by a “cyborg” general and the “surrogate fighter”?

Translated by Andreea Soare