When the Ukraine-Russia war started, a Silicon Valley CEO sent an open letter to European leaders offering help to modernize military strategies by integrating artificial intelligence (AI). So, is this the future of the military?

In his open letter, Alexander Karp, CEO of data analytics company Palantir, wrote that many global conflicts are stepping from contradictions and misinformation.

“A lack of genuine interest in shifts in national ambitions and capabilities can be fatal to those who would rather impose their view of the appropriate arc of history onto history’s disjointed path than investigate its complexity.”

As he said, they rejected the assumption that the state would have to vilify civilian privacy just to get accurate data and information. Karp said many “broadly assumed that the only way to effectively combat terrorism was to build software platforms that would assist the state in gathering every shred of information and evidence about its citizens without any concern for their rights.

Alexander Karp
Alex Karp, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Palantir Technologies, USA speaking at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 19, 2017 (Source: World Economic Forum/Flickr)

Karp believes there are new software technologies that would allow states to effectively and accurately provide informed decisions from ethically sourced data. He also calls for urgent attention to technology, most especially AI.

“An embrace of the relationship between technology and the state, between disruptive companies that seek to dislodge the grip of entrenched contractors and the federal government ministries with funding, will be required for Europe and its allies to remain strong enough to defeat the threat of foreign occupation.”

Whether it was Karp’s open letter or other factors, Europe has now embraced the notion of advanced technological development and AI in their military branches and defense.

Last June, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the leaders and ministers of the 22 allied countries signed NATO’s Innovation Fund. This has become the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund.

“This fund is unique,” the Secretary-General said, “with a 15-year timeframe, the NATO Innovation Fund will help bring to life those nascent technologies that have the power to transform our security in the decades to come, strengthening the Alliance’s innovation ecosystem and bolstering the security of our one billion citizens.”

The Fund is set to initially invest 1 billion euros in early-stage start-ups and other funds that use emerging technologies in the military. The verticals include biotechnology and human enhancement, energy, propulsion, space, artificial intelligence, big-data processing, autonomy, quantum-enabled technologies, and novel materials.

NATO OTAN Insignia
NATO OTAN Insignia (Source: Jetijones/Wikimedia)

This will complement NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic or DIANA.

As Europe and US focus on integrating technology within the military, the UK had recently launched a new AI strategy for defense when the Ukraine-Russia war started. Outside the NATO alliance, Germany also pushed under half a billion for AI research and another $100 billion cash injection to the military.

“War is a catalyst for change,” says Kenneth Payne, who leads defense studies research at King’s College London and is the author of the book I, Warbot: The Dawn of Artificially Intelligent Conflict.

On the other hand, the US is tapping Silicon Valley big names like Amazon, Google, and other AI startups during the Department of Defense (DoD) tour in 2017. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he’s keen to know more about AI and Deep Learning and wants to ensure the military is not left behind.

Research into AI has been happening since the early 1960s. The top two organizations focusing on this work are DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) and the Office of Naval Research. Some of the uses of AI in the current military are focused on non-combat roles. For example, DART, a military planning tool, used AI in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. They’re also using AI as training simulators. The US Air Force also works privately with AI developers to collect information faster. But, the ultimate goal for AIs is to have them ready for decision-making.

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Other uses of AI include:

  • Autonomous Weapons and Weapons Targeting
  • Surveillance
  • Cybersecurity
  • Homeland Security
  • Logistics
  • Autonomous Vehicles

Though the capabilities of AI integration are promising, implementing them in military branches is a whole other story. According to French CEO of AI surveillance startup Arnaud Guérin, the military is still dominated by large contractors focused on military hardware and not AI software.

The vetting process is also another hurdle. With AI’s ethics and coverage, one contract approval can span decades, and this pace is opposite to the fast-paced startup cycles that can boost companies from zero to $100 million in a year.

General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz Katherine Boyle said this is also why she’s not optimistic about military AI integration anytime soon. AI startups usually go bankrupt while waiting for defense contracts to be approved.

“Some of those hoops are totally critical, particularly in this sector where security concerns are very real,” says Mark Warner, who founded FacultyAI, a data analytics company that works with the British military. “But others are not … and in some ways have enshrined the position of incumbents.”