The growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – commonly known as drones – in both military and commercial settings, has ensued in a debate as to whether it is moral and ethical to use machines and robots to take lives of humans or should there be an outright ban on the ‘killer robots’. Since these machines (flying or otherwise) theoretically incorporate ‘artificial intelligence’ that makes them capable of executing missions on their own, the debate concerns whether artificially-intelligent machines should be allowed to execute such military missions, especially if there is a possibility that any human life could be at stake.
The advancement of ‘artificial intelligence’ (hereinafter AI), particularly in the recent decades, is inextricably linked to the expertise of the engineers developing these systems. Hence, the future of AI in military systems is directly tied to the ability of engineers to design autonomous systems that demonstrate independent capacity for knowledge- and expert-based reasoning. There are no such autonomous systems currently in operation. Most ground robots are tele-operated, essentially meaning that humans still directly control a robot from some distance away as though via a virtual extension cord. Most military UAVs are only slightly more sophisticated: they have some low-level autonomy that allows them to navigate, and in some cases land, without human intervention, but almost all require significant human intervention to execute their missions. Even those that take off, fly over a target to capture images, and then return home.
While current operational systems are more automatic than autonomous, there are significant global efforts in the research and development (R&D) of autonomous systems. Incremental progress in such military system development is occurring in many countries in air, ground, on-water and underwater vehicles with varying degrees of success. Several types of autonomous helicopters that can be directed with a smart phone by a soldier in the field are in development in the US, in Europe and in China. Autonomous ground vehicles such as tanks and other transport vehicles are in development worldwide, as are autonomous underwater vehicles. In almost all cases, however, the agencies developing these technologies are struggling to make the leap from development to operational implementation.
There are many reasons for the lack of success in bringing these technologies to maturity, including cost and unforeseen technical issues, but equally problematic are organizational and cultural barriers. The US has, for instance, struggled to bring autonomous UAVs to operational status, primarily as a result of organizational in-fighting and prioritization in favour of manned aircraft. For example, despite the fact that the F-22 aircraft has experienced significant technical problems and has flown little in combat, the US Air Force is considering restarting the F-22 production line – in itself an extremely costly option – as opposed to investing in more drone acquisitions. Beyond the production line, moreover, the hourly operational cost of the F-22 is $68,362, as compared with the Predator’s $3,679; the latter can perform most of the same core functions of an F-22 save for air-to-air combat missions, which the F-22 itself could not previously perform due to technical problems.
To give another example, the US Navy’s X-47 was intended to be developed as an autonomous fighter/bomber aircraft, but despite many successful sea trials, it is now slated to operate as a tanker for aerial refuelling – a far cry from its original, achievable purpose. Both the US Air Force and Navy have chosen to use the vast majority of aircraft acquisition funds for the manned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, even though the programme has been beset with management and engineering problems, and whose relevance is contested particularly in light of advancing autonomous technologies.
For many in the military, UAVs are acceptable only in a support role, but they threaten the status quo if allowed to take the most prestigious, ‘tip-of-the-spear’ jobs. There are, however, other organizational issues limiting the operational implementation of autonomous systems, and one that is increasingly problematic is the shift in advanced development from military to commercial settings. And, there are fears that the shift in expertise from the military to the commercial sector will further complicate the matter of using autonomous weapons, and will make it difficult for governments to deploy and manage these systems.
A metaphorical arms race is in progress in the commercial sphere of autonomous systems development. Military autonomous systems development has been slow and incremental at best, and pales in comparison with the advances made in commercial autonomous systems such as drones, and especially in driverless cars. Driverless car development originated with a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programme in 2004. When the programme ended in 2007, driverless cars could move only slowly through closed courses, and not without accidents. A decade later, industry is on the verge of commercializing driverless cars around the world. This rapid progress is a result of the significant industry-sponsored R&D investment, as well as competition for the multibillion dollar automotive consumer market. Meanwhile, there has been very little progress in military autonomous vehicle development.
The inability of the military to advance its autonomy programmes, not only on the ground but also in the air and in other domains, is evidently linked to the growth in autonomous systems in the commercial market, particularly driverless cars. Three key sectors: aerospace and defence; automotive; and information and communication, are core to the development of autonomous systems, and so tracking spending there gives an insight into the speed and extent of innovation. The aerospace and defence sector is responsible for the bulk of the development of military autonomous systems. However, R&D spending is far below that of the other two sectors (only around 15 percent of the global information and communication sector, for example). In the US, moreover, spending has actually been declining. Autonomous systems development is not a priority for the US defence industry, as it competes for investment with development of traditional platforms like narrowly capable manned fighter aircraft (e.g. the F-35) and extremely costly laser weapons. The outcome is that only a very small proportion of defence R&D money is invested in autonomous military systems.
In contrast, not only is R&D spending in the automotive sector three times that of the aerospace and defence industry, but it is growing in both the US and the global markets. A key factor in spending in this sector is the development of driverless car technology as reflected in the intensely competitive market for start-ups such as Cruise Automation, bought by General Motors for more than $1 billion in 2016.
The information and communication sector is another critical stakeholder in the development of autonomous systems. Industries within the sector specialize in the development of software, including machine learning and AI that are core capabilities for these advanced systems. To give some examples, X (formerly known as Google X) has both drone and driverless car research programmes; Facebook and Amazon have drone development programmes; and Apple is thought to have an autonomous car development project. Given that the information technology companies are spending far more on R&D than does the aerospace and defence sector, it is clear why there has been far greater progress in commercial autonomous systems development.
As regards the future of warfare as it is linked to AI, the large disparity in commercial versus military autonomous R&D spending could have a cascading effect on the types and quality of autonomy that are eventually incorporated into military systems. One critical issue in this regard is whether defence companies will have the capacity to develop and test safe and controllable autonomous systems, especially those that fire weapons.
Engineers who design such systems must have strong hardware as well as software expertise. However, there are a limited number of universities graduating students in robotics, controls, mechatronics and related fields with the technical prowess for such jobs, and so there is fierce competition for highly qualified personnel. This demand is what drives $1 billion startup acquisitions, as well as buy-outs of university research groups such as that by Uber, in 2015, of 40 highly skilled roboticists from the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University. Boston Dynamics, at one time the leading US military R&D robotics company, was bought by Google in 2013 for domestic robot development, and was reported by a number of sources in 2016 to be a target for acquisition by Toyota for its driverless car development programme.
With such a hotly competitive market for roboticists and related engineers across these industries, the aerospace and defence sector is less appealing to the most able personnel. As a result, the global defence industry is falling behind its commercial counterparts in terms of technology innovation, with the gap only widening as the best and brightest engineers move to the commercial sphere. This comparative lack of expertise means that military autonomous systems eventually fielded could be deficient, or lacking in appropriate safeguards and testing. So, a more immediate issue is the ability of defence industries to field safe semi-autonomous systems, much less fully autonomous ones.
While some may say that the current distribution of both R&D and expertise is the inevitable outcome of competition and a free market, this does not fully acknowledge the reality of a fundamental shift in technology prowess whereby militaries will start to significantly lag in autonomous system capabilities as compared with commercial systems. This imbalance in technology access will no doubt introduce new unforeseen and disruptive dynamics for military operations.
The gap between historical military superiority in UAV development and the present capabilities of the commercial sector is closing, as evidenced by the increasing number of military-grade drones offered for sale via the internet. Footage showing weaponization of drones, once thought to be the exclusive domain of established militaries, can now be regularly be found on YouTube.
Given the current extent of commercial development of drones and other robotic systems, there are other important considerations such as the possible latent consequences of companies and countries that rush AI technologies to market – as against nation states that tend to take more conservative approaches. Fielding nascent technologies without comprehensive testing could put both military personnel and civilians at undue risk. However, the rapid development of commercial autonomous systems could normalize the acceptance of autonomous systems for the military and the public, and this could encourage state militaries to fund the development of such systems at a level that better matches investment in manned systems.
There shouldn’t be any doubt that AI is going to be part of the future of militaries around the world. The landscape is changing quickly and in potentially disruptive ways. AI is advancing, but given the current struggle to imbue computers with true knowledge and expert-based behaviours, as well as limitations in perception sensors, it will be many years before AI will be able to approximate human intelligence in high-uncertainty settings – as epitomized by the fog of war. Given the present inability of AI to reason in such high-stakes settings, it is understandable that many people want to ban autonomous weapons, but the complexity of the field means that prohibition must be carefully scoped.
However, the impact of the rapid expansion of the commercial market on autonomous systems development cannot be overstated. Machines, computers and robots are getting ‘smarter’ primarily because roboticists and related engineers are getting smarter, so this relatively small group of expert humans is becoming a critical commodity. Ultimately, the growth in the commercial information technology and automotive sectors, in terms of both attracting top talent and expanding autonomous systems capabilities in everyday commercial products, could be a double-edged sword that will undoubtedly affect militaries around the world in as yet imagined ways.