A Matter of Ethics: Should Artificial Intelligence be Deployed in Warfare?

The thriving technological advancements have driven the Fourth Industrial Revolution nowadays. Indeed, the rapid growth of big data, quantum computing, and the Internet of things (IoT) has been reshaping all human activities – it creates a new business model, removes geographical boundaries, and revamps the decision-making process not only on the individual level but also on the state level. It has also influenced all human dimensions, from economic and social sectors to the political sphere. One of the results of this transformation is the emersion of Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is designed to recognize speech, learn, plan, and solve a problem. Generally, AI is described as a machine that can learn by itself, eventually imitating how the human brain works. 

In the past few decades, researchers have achieved a breakthrough related to AI development that significantly exceeds the projections of experts in this field. An AI specialist who created Go-Playing, also known as Alpha Go, in 2014 said that it would take another ten years for a computer to overcome human Go-Champion. However, one year later, a researcher at Google DeepMind successfully established a technology to defeat it. From this point forward, AI is progressing at a breakneck speed. According to Greg Allen and Taniel Chan in their research about Artificial Intelligence and National Security, the evolution of AI is driven by some key factors, including: (1) exponential development in computing capability; (2) enlarged data-set; (3) advancement in the application of machine learning method and algorithm; and most importantly (4) the fast expansion of business interest and investment in AI. 

There have been broad usages of AI in recent years, and it can be found in various programs and technological devices. AI has helped humans map and target markets, providing safer travel through a smart car or self-driving car, helping people predict the weather, and much more. The expansion of AI holds a promising future in many sectors, including in military dimensions. Its existence has become a huge turning point for creating autonomous weapons, vehicles, and logistic tools which could increase military capability. Robert Work, in his remark at CNAS Inaugural National Security Forum in 2015, stated that world leaders have been quick to recognize Artificial Intelligence’s revolutionary potential as a critical component of national security. It is proved by the increasing global investments in Artificial Intelligence for national security and the rising usage of AI in defense strategy.

The Usage of AI in Military Sector

Since World War II, semi-autonomous weapons have been deployed on the battlefields. This type of weapons system is continuously being developed in numerous countries. The massive growth of Artificial Intelligence, supported by extensive investments in this sector, has transformed semi-autonomous weapons into fully-autonomous ones. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), notably deployed by the US in Kosovo in 1999, were one of the first by-products resulting from this significant development. Back then, the US Defense had not thoroughly investigated how this technology might impact future military actions. 

Fast forward two decades after the first usage of UAVs in military operations, the US Government has successfully improved the AI aspect significantly. By 2019, the Sea Hunter Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV), owned by the United States Navy (USN), successfully sailed without crew from California to Hawaii. It was navigated by AI using a data set collected by the vessel’s onboard sensors, radars, and cameras. Further, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) launched an AI-powered F-16 Fighter Aircraft in 2020. During some trials, this aircraft could defeat a comparable simulation controlled by a very experienced human. The number of funds invested by the US Department of Defence for AI development has also increased – from USD 600 Million in 2016- 2017 to USD 2,5 Billion in 2021-2022. This trend is not only happening in the US.  

China is now using AI to increase the speed and precision of its tactical decision-making by automating its command and control system. This practice effectively established predictive operational planning. Apart from that, the government of China has already begun testing AI-enabled USVs for future development in the South China Sea. Russia might lag, but Putin presumably does not want to be excluded in this race as the government has targeted 30 percent of its entire military forces to become robotic by 2025. Russia is also working on multiple fronts by conducting research focused on using AI in information operations and increasing the efficacy of land warfare operations. This indicates how AI has gained compelling popularity among various states regarding its military usage. It seems that the prospect of wars using robots with minimum or even no human involvement in the future would be inevitable.

Deploying AI in Warfare: Against Human Ethics?

Along with technological development, military warfare is also growing; both are interwoven. The emergence of Artificial Intelligence would bring up the same effect, if not more. The initial indications have clearly shown how AI will play a significant role in shaping future wars. Even when AI has yet to be tested in the harsh environment of the natural world of combat operations, its prospect for future warfare cannot be ignored. However, despite all its benefits to improving a state’s defense and offense capability, the increasing adoption of AI into military forces gives rise to a debate, mainly related to legal, ethical, and security perspectives. Current AI development can address some specific problems more consistently than humans. It can detect patterns and anomalies within vast unstructured data faster than humans. According to Peter Layton in his publication – Fighting Artificial Intelligence Battle: Operational Concept for Future AI-Enabled Wars – the latest generation of AI is influential in five main areas, including identifying, grouping, generating, forecasting, and planning. Humans can execute those activities, but AI can do those tasks efficiently and much faster. 

Nevertheless, some aspects need to be considered for further deployment of AI in warfare. With all of the intelligence an AI machine can uphold, it would still be vulnerable to cyberattacks, which brings more concern towards security. Furthermore, AI is still proven to be unably adapting to minor changes. It still has difficulties to apply the same knowledge to different contexts. And with human life at stake, this shortcoming is more or less unacceptable. In a war situation, where it is a matter of life and death, removing human footprints in the decision-making process would put ground morals and ethics at stake. After all, AI is not a human; in a general context, it should not be the one making a decision over a human.

Wahyu Candra Dewi
Wahyu Candra Dewi
Graduate student in International Relations at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. Interested in digital transformation, environmental issues, and human security.