Last Monday President Trump signed an executive order titled ‘Maintaining American leadership in Artificial Intelligence (AI)’. This new policy is based on five main principles, first of which firmly outlines uniting Federal government with industry and academia to lead scientific innovation, strengthen economic competition and enhance national security.
While Trump’s policy commitments and articulation on many spheres have come under significant criticism the move to consolidate AI leadership gained recognition from many across the political spectrum. The recent American onslaught on Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei, Chinese and Russian increasing investments into AI research and development are clear signs of a new level of strategic competition that is emerging as a geo political tussle for technological dominance.
It is commonly agreed that the country that will dominate realms of cyber, artificial intelligence will achieve a strategic edge over others in the 21st Century. Therefore, the emerging international security landscape though littered with a multitude of other security challenges is witnessing a thrust of investment on AI as it affects all aspects of civilian and military structures and innovations in statecraft in general.
Sri Lanka’s national security establishment, industry and academia and its discourse on technology and politics is extremely limited, technical expertise is abundant yet discourse on strategic technologies on influencing political decision making, evolving military strategy, national and international security are limited. This column since its inception two years back at various conjunctures attempted to bring into light the importance of having such a national wide consultation. The column will strive to achieve that objective in its future iterations as it is a critical component when articulating Sri Lanka’s national interests and forging policies.
AI and its strategic connotation
Technological advances in cyber systems and increasing number of smart devices has created an abundance of big data that is circulated in the cyber echo systems. This is data we produce in daily activities from merely uploading social media content to use of other online services such as simply streaming a movie. Artificial Intelligence is not a new phenomenon, yet it has become a primary component in this data and sensory revolution. Smart devices from an average smart phone to an advanced missile system relies on sensors, sensors can accumulate massive amounts of data in raw forms.
From drone wars to surveillance programs, raw data has maintained the edge for modern military over its adversaries both in geo political power struggles and over terrorism, organized crimes and violent extremism. Yet the sheer amount of data that has been accumulated has made it nearly impossible for human analysis. AI thrives on big data. AI learns directly from data thus installing AI solutions can enhance every aspect of human life and will be a critical component of strategy and politics in the 21st Century.
2017 Origins of Geo Politics of AI
State efforts at creating strategic doctrines and guidelines for advancement and application of Artificial Intelligence is very recent. The coherent application of AI as part of national security strategies and national development policies are quite new. In this context the year 2017 is decisive. In June 2017, China unveiled an ambitious plan to be the world leader in Artificial Intelligence and bolster an AI based industry by 2030 that is worth nearly $150 Billion. This was backed up by the historic speech made to the Chinese Central committee by President Xi Jin Ping in October 2017 during the 19th CPC National Congress, in his marathon speech he outlined the importance of China’s emergence as a technological power house and driver of innovation and modernization of the Chinese military.
September 1, in the same year, President Putin addressing high school students in the first day of school, made a frequently quoted statement, Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict.
Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world. The importance is unlike China or the US, Russia has not invested vast amount of funding into their AI development. Yet Russia has invested heavily into Autonomous ground attack vehicles, which includes full-size armored personal careers to main battle tanks. They also are experimenting with a fully autonomous turret. In contrast the US Army spent on unmanned systems of which 80% of that money went into air systems.
The Russians have mastered significant vulnerabilities in the use of social media platforms in the West, with liberal ethos of information freedom and democratization of the internet, Russian information war teams have understood the power of weaponizing narratives on social media. They managed to infiltrate smartphone apps of Ukrainian soldiers during 2014 and utilizing these vulnerabilities to track them through their fire control radars making it easier for targeting, leading to many deaths among Ukrainian soldiers. Weaponizing bots on social media has become a major challenge for Western societies especially with the rise of deep fake technologies. Deep fakes are software and AI capable of substituting voice and facial expressions from one person to another. Such weaponization has led to serious challenges for Western states and national security policy makers.
"In June 2017, China unveiled an ambitious plan to be the world leader in AI
In 2017, AI was used in the fight against ISIS in Central Asia, Africa"
In 2017, American military started using its own AI developments for battlefield use with the introduction of the controversial Project Maven, an algorithm developed by Google for the military. Project Maven was an AI solution that could track multiple targets and identify them when integrated with advanced surveillance feeds used on military platforms such as Reaper drones to small ScanEagle drones which carries out daily surveillance in Afghan and Iraqi theatres. By late 2017 this technology was used in the fight against ISIS in both Central Asia and Africa.
Daily surveillance from drones provides unprecedented amount of data, the algorithm is capable of sifting through it and in real time analyse and provide potential people, locations of interest. It is now fused with a geo location solution used by the US Navy called Minotaur which provides exact locations and coordinates. Thus, war fighting, anti-terror operations, special force operations are being revolutionized through AI integration making such programs priority in security advancement among all major powers.
Strategic AI and Sri Lanka’s choices
AI is being used from expanding the manoeuvrability of autonomous vehicles from the industry to military. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which also was home to many cybernetic developments from the Internet, GPS, to robotics have recently successfully completed the work of an autonomous submarine hunter surface vessel. The Ship few months back completed a sea trial that spanned a trip from San Diego to Pearl Harbour; a trip which is more than 5000 miles. The 132-foot ship costs only on average US$ 20,000 to operate on a day while America’s premier destroyer fleet costs US$ 700,000 thousand per day per ship. AI has the capability to just to make platforms more capable and lethal but vastly cost effective.
Sri Lanka and many small states are revisiting their own security policies and are in the process of looking at what that future strategic challenges are, the premier security domain Sri Lanka needs to work advance is maritime security. While maritime security is not totally in the domain of SL Navy the challenges that are emerging from surface and beneath the sea will have a great impact on our national security. Autonomous systems and surveillance systems which are less expensive yet more sophisticated to operate maybe feasible than going into acquiring large platforms.
AI and Autonomy in security sector are totally altering the options for any military and in some cases lowering costs, thus drone swarms, Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) are becoming major options of many nations. Sri Lanka with a massive ocean space to secure may benefit from focusing on such platforms yet do we have the political will, the policy insight and academic input and the temperament for all relevant stake holders to work together to evolve our own strategic doctrines, defence acquisition schemes is yet to be seen.