Before robots can take over from humans, we need more humans
With private companies leading AI development, defence departments need their own specialists
In a world where technological prowess, rather than manpower, defines military might, the UK needs to focus its resources on developing an industrial and research base in artificial intelligence and robotics.
So says the Ministry of Defence in its new Joint Concept Note, titled Human and Machine Teaming, where it also laments the UK's skills shortage and suggests maintaining ‘a register of security-cleared UK nationals' with AI and robotics expertise.
Don't worry if this all sounds a bit 1984 - all documents from the MoD come across that way.
The document sets out the Ministry's vision of the future in a world where artificial intelligence is critical to national defence, which relies on access to two ‘critical indirect elements': qualified experts and investment.
The lead in technology development has shifted from the public to the private sector in recent decades, with ‘civil commercial investment in AI and robotic technologies and the recruitment of subject matter experts' vastly outstripping the resources available to nation states.
The best systems thus begin and remain in the civilian sector, making military access a challenge: ‘Some Western commercial entities have publicly declared policies stating they will not contract with defence or security agencies which may compound the challenges facing the UK Ministry of Defence. This is in stark contrast to other states which have enshrined access rights to expertise, technology and data in their national legislation.'
The MoD goes on to paint a picture where countries with low GDP or manpower, but strengths in mathematics, programming and other technologies, could increasingly ‘punch above their weight'. Just to drive the point home, the Note specifically mentions the West's bogeyman, Russia.
How does the defence industry compete?
Technology giants like Google are keen to bring AI and robotics experts on board and keep them there, through recruitment drives and M&A movements. The defence industry struggles to compete in a market where private companies might pay the equivalent of $10 million per expert acquired in such a way.
The MoD suggests ‘[being] innovative to secure access to subject matter expertise' and ‘[needing] to nurture sufficient in-house knowledge and understanding to generate intelligent customer capabilities'.
In English, that means that the Ministry wants to make sure its own experts are...well, experts, who can understand what they're being told by contractors. As the MoD, and defence departments worldwide, have to buy AI systems from commercial companies, that is vital to ensure that budgets are spent responsibly.
That's where the proposed register comes in, as a list of security-cleared experts could help the MoD understand the technology behind the hype; much the same as the cybersecurity experts that GCHQ can call upon.
‘This may be as valuable an advantage as the ability to fabricate high grade steel during the Victorian age', the Note claims.
You might have noticed that there's very little mention above of the way that the MoD intends to actually use AI in the field. Just to keep you happy, here's the view of a future command centre:
‘Longer term research efforts should be focused on the use of intelligent software agents that manage all aspects of information processing. Ultimately, this could eliminate technological constraints that confine us to our current monolithic headquarters approaches. The whole system could be built on a federated, disaggregated and self-organising peer-to-peer command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) network - effectively a combat cloud. Such a system should be able to draw on reachback access to cloud-based servers, but be capable of resilient operation provided by command and control applications across a variety of in-theatre platforms. From an operator's perspective such a system will handle user requests for information and data passage as an intelligent assistant service.'