Armageddon by AI – declarations of Hyper War to scare Dr Strangelove


In an age of AI and machine-learning, the future of war looks very different and needs some radical re-thinking of defence strategies from NATO states.

It goes without saying that we live in hugely uncertain times. Yesterday’s rocket launch from Kim Jong Un of North Korea served as an unncecessary reminder of that. Tensions inevitably rise, particularly when there’s a worry that World War III could be announced via an ill-tempered tweet from the White House at 4am.

Earlier this month, a special United Nations group took a look at the threat from Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, AKA Elon Musk’s killer robots, poised to stomp into a neighborhood near you. The UN, operating to form, chose to kick this into the long grass and come back to the subject next year.

Others are approaching the topic with more urgency, such as Martha Lane-Fox, Baroness of Soho, who sits on the UK Government’s Joint Committee on National Security Strategy. In a debate in the House of Lords last week around the UK’s defence priorities, she told peers:

We do not have time to waste — this is one of the gravest moments in my lifetime.

Consideration of the internet and associated technologies needs to be hardwired into defence strategy, she advised:

It would be absurd to talk about our defence resources without recognising the role of the internet in global peace. This is an enormous challenge. When it comes to resourcing and defending the uk and maintaining our role in global peace we must recognise the threats have changed forever and our resourcing must reflect this. I believe we in the UK do not yet understand the full power of the internet.

A big problem is, she added, that certain other countries do:

These countries are the Russia,China — and to a lesser degree the North Korea. Surprising choices you might think but consider their strategies. Russia was quick to change its military doctrine to incorporate ‘information operations which lays out a new theory of modern warfare — one that according to [academic John] Naughton looks more like hacking an enemy’s society than attacking it head-on.

China is clearly very different but as threatening — it is highly technically literate but it has decided to build an Internet without its liberal tendencies. As Naughton writes” China now has a very large and vibrant Internet, huge online industries and formidable technical and hacking capabilities. They have invented what the scholar Rebecca Mackinnon calls ‘networked authoritarianism’. I call it a parallel internet.

Thirdly, North Korean proficiency in cyber operations is steadily mounting…As Naughton says ‘Kim Jong Un’s regime has understood how digital technology can overcome its industrial and economic weakness and turn it into a strength’.

Lane-Fox’s grim conclusion:

We have three regimes using the internet in different but terrifying ways — ways which i do not believe we are either resourced, or equally importantly, structured to fight.

Hyper War is coming

Russian President Vladimir Putin gets this – stating that:

The one who becomes the leader in this [AI] sphere will be the ruler of the world.

Other nation states aren’t quite so up to speed, according to Globalsec, a public policy research institute in Slovakia that has been looking at how NATO needs to change to meet the challenges of the future. In a final report published yesterday – Globesec NATO Adaptation Initiative – it warns:

The United States is moving sharply in this direction in order to compete with similar investments being made by Russia and China, which has itself committed to a spending plan on Artificial Intelligence that far outstrips all the other players in this arena, including the United States. However, with the Canadian and European Allies lagging someway behind, there is now the potential for yet another dangerous technological gap within the Alliance to open up, in turn undermining NATO’s political cohesion and military interoperability.

This report was compiled by a number of authors, including General John R. Allen, a retired United States Marine Corps four-star general, and former Deputy Commander of US Central Command, and Alexander Russell “Sandy” Vershbow, an American diplomat and former Deputy Secretary General of NATO. So it’s got some heavyweight credentials behind it and it’s probably worth paying attention to what it has to say.

Overall, the Globesec report warns that NATO is singularly unprepared to tackle future warfare scenarios. It talks about the emergence of the concepts of Hybrid War and Hyper War and the role that Artifical Intelligence and associated technologies will play in these:

Advances underway in security and defence-related technologies that span the confliict spectrum from Hybrid War at the lower end, to Hyper War at the future high end, will be rapid and dramatic. Hybrid War will continue to drive requirements for enhanced intelligence collection, cyber-security and critical infrastructure protection. Given the reliance of Alliance societies on web-vulnerable infrastructures, the effects of a cyber- attack could lead to significant if not catastrophic physical damage.

The possibility of such an attack could be used by adversaries to prevent NATO coming to the defence of its member nations. The societal damage could also be profound because hybrid warfare involves an imperceptibility of conflict and promotes ambiguity and confusion about the scale and nature of the threat, as well as the necessary responses. This confusion could easily paralyse decision-making and dislocate increasingly diverse societies, the cohesion and resilience of which can no longer be taken for granted.

Think that all sounds a bit grim? Try this for size:

Hyper Warfare is the idea that future war could take place at such a high level of strategy, technology and destruction that its effects would be worse than the Second World War between 1939 and 1945.

Elaborating on this, Globesec states:

Hyper War…will place unique requirements on defence architectures and the high-tech industrial base if the Alliance is to preserve an adequate deterrence and defence posture, let alone maintain a comparative advantage over peer competitors. Artificial Intelligence, deep learning, machine learning, computer vision, neuro-linguistic programming, virtual reality and augmented reality are all part of the future battlespace. They are all underpinned by potential advances in quantum computing that will create a conflict environment in which the decision-action loop will compress dramatically from days and hours to minutes and seconds…or even less.

What’s needed now, says Globalsec, is a future war strategy that fully-integrates Hybrid Warfare, cyber-war, counter-terrorism and Hyper War, as well as “the continuum between them”, arguing:

Critically, NATO must leverage the impact of new technologies on the security space and battlespace. NATO must better grip and exploit new information technologies, and systematically trawl newly-available Artificial Intelligence powered capacities to exploit Big Data.

To that end, NATO should consider creating an agency similar in mission to that of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), recommends Globalsec:

Deepen relations with established defence industries and forge new partnerships with the new defence sector. Critically, NATO must gain a far better understanding of the impact of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and data mining, together with their defence applications. Many of the companies driving new technologies are not defence giants, nor are many of them defence-focussed. Such companies will need to be sure that if they invest limited people and resources in NATO projects, their existence will not be threatened by sclerotic acquisition practices.

Such a DARPA-avatar would also assist in keeping the human factor in play and prevent the ‘rise of the bots’ armageddon scenario:

Humans must remain at the centre of decision-making and to ensure that virtual barriers must be built into AI. However, ‘intelligent machines’ will play an ever more important role in the conduct of warfare. One role for a NATO DARPA would be to educate leaders and the wider defence community about the role future technologies will play in command, with particular reference to AI. In the longer term, it could be the catalyst for new R&D and systems acquisition projects funded collectively by the Alliance or by groups of Allies.

My take

I said earlier this month that there is a need for the likes of the United Nations to be pursuing policy consensus around topics like this with more urgency. While I still reject the scaremongering of Elon Musk’s ‘killer robots on every corner’ hype, the comments of the enormously pragmatic Lane-Fox and the grim reading of the Globesec report add fuel to the fire. We really do need to push for international accords on this, however much of a mission impossible that might seem, before that tweet from the Oval Office gets sent or one of Kim Jong’s fireworks hits its target.

Image credit - Freeimages/Sergey Lebedev

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