Written by Matt Furlane
Over the last several years there has been a lot of optimism surrounding artificial intelligence (AI). From advances in self-driving cars to Amazon’s Alexa to Google’s AlphaGo, the ability of computer software to solve problems once thought only capable by humans has increased exponentially. Soon every hospital will have AI to help diagnose patients, and every city will use AI to be more efficient. Within the next three years, most consumer products like your cellphone, TV, car, and home appliances will be infused with advanced AI programs that talk with you naturally, monitor your daily habits, and connect to an AI cloud. It will be a revolution in the way we live. But is there a potential danger on the horizon?
Major concerns are now being raised by both governments and technology experts that the potential military applications for AI are causing a new arms race. Vladimir Putin ominously stated, “AI 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.” Hugo de Garis, author of The Artilect War has said, “In the next decade or so, I see a growing political rivalry between China and America because China is on its way up and America has only a quarter of their population with a much lower growth rate. So it’s inevitable…there’s going to be an AI arms race.” Popular futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has stated, “It really is intelligence that enables you to win in a conflict like warfare; the only thing that can defend you from AI that threatens you is to have AI that’s even smarter that’s on your side.”
Despite my previous hopes that AI would bring a more enlightened future, I’m now starting to share these new doubts that many have expressed. Humanity has survived a nuclear arms race, barely. But as North Korea’s recent hydrogen bomb test shows, even a small nation can eventually develop this technology and threaten the world. Imagine how hard it will be to control autonomous killing machines. The very nature of power and conventional war is about to drastically change and every advanced nation is now spending billions to acquire or develop better smart-weapons, and rogue states will soon follow. The race for weaponized AI has begun.
According to military experts, robot soldiers, drones, and quantum computers will be key components of the 21st century battlefield. I will briefly discuss these developments.
First, robots. When most of us consider robots, maybe we think of toys, manufacturing assembly lines, or Jarvis in the movie Iron Man. But there are military applications to consider as well. Although robots seen in movies like the Terminator have been viewed as extreme science fiction, they are now becoming a real possibility. According to a study by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the goal of autonomous battle field robots could be achieved by as early as the year 2025. And if you search on YouTube for Boston Dynamics, now owned by Google, you will understand why combat robots are just around the corner. Countries like China, with large manufacturing capabilities, could easily quadruple their standing armies by creating robot soldiers, thus forcing other nations to compete or fall behind. Even smaller nations like North Korea with limited capabilities could produce armies larger than their economies would normally be able to support. Or instead of fully robotic soldiers, they could use smart exo-skeletons depicted in films like Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow. In this manner, the traditional infantry soldier would be able to exceed all current physical limitations, lifting heavier objects, running faster, and engaging in combat for longer periods of time. The first nation to field a battalion of these types of soldiers could destabilize an entire region – but nation states aren’t the only worry. Governments could easily suppress their populations and criminal syndicates could use robots to control drug territory. These are only some of the potential dangers we face from robot soldiers.
Secondly, drones. The first drone-like device was used in World War II. The Germans successfully used an explosive device called the “Goliath,” which looked like a mini tank and was remotely controlled by a soldier who would target Allied tanks. Today, drones like the U.S.’s Predator, armed with spy cameras and missiles are being used in places like Afghanistan to devastating effect. Currently, they are operated by humans but could easily be automated using AI software for targeting and execution. Every nation wants this ability. But what happens when governments turn this technology against civilian populations? Already in the U.S., technology once used by the military has been used domestically to undermine the political opposition. For example, spying on the president and collecting data on millions of innocent people. And Third World authoritarian regimes facing democratic uprisings could track the political opposition in real time with drones and use that technology as a means of staying in power. We see this today being implemented in places like Hong Kong by the Chinese government. Is Korea next? If we are going to preserve human rights and democracy, then we need checks and balances on the use of drones. The frightening reality is that this technology will soon be everywhere, and the addition of AI to their capabilities will only make them more invasive and more lethal.
Lastly, quantum computers. Regular computers use transistors in a serial binary system to process information. 1’s and 0’s are sent back and forth based on the speed of the processor and computer programs written to execute instructions in a step-by-step method. Quantum computing changes everything by using quantum bits (called qubits) that can be in multiple states simultaneously. These new computers will be able to process vast quantities of information in parallel at insanely fast speeds. The first quantum computer was created by the company D-Wave, but IBM and Google are also investing billions of dollars into their own quantum computer development. China has taken notice and is doing the same. From decrypting communications and simulating nuclear explosions to running battlefield simulations involving millions of units, the military potential is huge. But ultimately, the primary goal is to use quantum technology to create advanced neural networks to create even smarter, more powerful AI weapons. Whoever gains “quantum supremacy” may indeed rule the world.
Given all these potential developments, I’m wondering whether humanity will survive its own progress. If this new arms race spins out of control, we could be facing a century of human suffering and death. Scientist Richard Dawkins has somewhat comically stated on the YouTube channel, Big Think, the following: “They [machines] might do a better job of running the world than we are. It might be no bad thing if we went extinct.”
Dawkins may be correct, but it won’t be the machines that made us extinct: it will be ourselves. As we go forth into the 21st century, citizens and governments will have to cooperate to ensure a better future, to insure this arms race stays under control. I, for one, am not ready to go extinct.
Matt is an English teacher from the United States. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and an associate’s degree in electronics engineering. He took up photography and journalism after he graduated and still relies heavily on a spell checker for words like “necessary” and “Mississippi.”
Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author.