Selling Autonomy: AI For Military Operations



AI has been growing in importance across a number of sectors, from software that can handle monotonous office tasks to self-driving cars and advanced machine learning, but one field that’s been disproportionately impacted by this technology is the military. Around the globe, defense programs are pouring funds into AI, and it’s changing the way wars are fought and how we think about security more broadly.

International Investments

The United States has a reputation for record military spending, with the current budget estimated at $892 billion, Americans aren’t the only ones spending on military AI. China, for example, recently poured $1 billion into building a national quantum information sciences laboratory to advance their own AI research, while Russia is slowly applying funds to advance electronic warfare efforts, which have already been deployed to Syria, Ukraine, and Crimea. These programs are split between in-house development programs like that in China and AI purchased from outside vendors.

Autonomous Operations

One of the primary reasons that defense programs are interested in AI is that such technology essentially allows them to have eyes everywhere at once. Autonomous technologies use machine learning for multi-focal mission planning, allow for collaborative decision-making between humans and machines, as well as up-to-the-minute sensor management to optimize monitoring across all relevant locations.

AI technology is also vital for digital military operations and can be used to prevent cyber attacks. Since cyber warfare is a growing concern for today’s military – digital resources are as valuable, if not more valuable than material ones – background AI system operating to protect military information are actually a first line of defense against both domestic and foreign attacks.

Selling AI For Defense

Generally speaking, military bodies have high standards for technology, but they also have deep pockets, and that means there’s abundant room for growth. In France, Emmanuel Macron has committed $1.85 billion over five years to the creation of a DARPA-style organization. These military efforts will likely cross over into the commercial sector in coming years and influence how machine learning functions in other industries. Meanwhile, in Germany, there are still relatively few military applications of AI, but they’re abundant in the commercial sector. In order to make the leap from commercial computing to military use, these technologies will need to be improved, both in terms of security and capacity.

It’s fundamentally impossible to divorce commercial and military AI; the growth of one will always drive the other, in the way that IBM machines made World War II possible, for example. And unlike building an airplane or even a bomb, the rise of AI is likely to create an ongoing connection between business, government, and military systems. The same geoprofiling software that identifies sales patterns can also find hotspots for crime or terrorist attacks, while the sensors used to monitor battlefields can also be used in factories.

AI users at all levels should be mindful of the benefits of such overlapping structures – with so many players positioned to benefit from these technologies, it will likely improve rapidly and the tools should be more affordable. Though there can be conflicting aims among users, an emphasis on collaboration in building these systems will help everyone.