Like gunpowder and the atomic bomb, artificial intelligence (AI) has the capacity to revolutionise warfare, analysts say, making human disputes unimaginably different — and a lot more deadly.
Ahead of a summit between China’s Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, there had been suggestions that the two men would agree to ban lethal autonomous weapons.
The meeting appeared to produce no such accord, but experts say it’s a vital topic that is already altering armed conflict — and switching up the competition for global supremacy.
Observers say Beijing is massively investing in AI, to the point where it may soon be able to change the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, and perhaps beyond.
And that has profound implications for a world order that has long been dominated by the United States.
“This is not about the anxiety of no longer being the dominant power in the world; it is about the risks of living in a world in which the Chinese Communist Party becomes the dominant power,” said a report by a panel of experts led by former Google president Eric Schmidt.
Here are some of the possible applications of AI in the art of warfare.
– Autonomous weapons –
Robots, drones, torpedoes… all kinds of weapons can be transformed into autonomous systems, thanks to sophisticated sensors governed by AI algorithms that allow a computer to “see”.
Autonomy does not mean that a weapon might “wake up in the morning and decide to go and start a war,” said Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley.
“It’s that they have the capability of locating, selecting and attacking human targets, or targets containing human beings, without human intervention.”
The killer robots of any number of sci-fi dystopias are an obvious example, but perhaps not a very practical one.
“People have been exploring that too, (but) to my mind that one is the least useful,” Russell added.
Most weapons are still in the idea or prototype stages, but Russia’s war in Ukraine has offered a glimpse of their potential.
Remotely piloted drones are not new, but they are becoming increasingly independent and are being used by both sides, sending humans underground to seek refuge.
This could be one of the biggest immediate changes, according to Russell.
“A likely consequence of having autonomous weapons is that basically, being visible anywhere on the battlefield will be a death sentence.”
Autonomous weapons have several potential advantages for an attacking army: they can be more efficient, can probably be produced more cheaply, and they remove tricky human emotions such as fear or anger from battlefield situations.
But these advantages raise ethical questions.
For example, if they are so cheap and easy to make, there is virtually no limit to the firepower an aggressor can employ, Russell said.
“I can simply launch a million of them at once if I want to wipe out an entire city or an entire ethnic group,” he added.
– Autonomous vehicles –
Submarines, boats and planes that are capable of operating autonomously could be a huge boost to reconnaissance, surveillance or logistical support in remote or dangerous environments.
Such vehicles are at the heart of the “Replicator” program launched by the Pentagon to counter China’s enormous manpower advantage.
The objective is to be able to deploy several thousand cheap and easy-to-replace systems in short order, said US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, in a variety of areas ranging from maritime to outer-space.
The idea is that with so many “flung into space scores at a time… it becomes impossible to eliminate or degrade them all,” Hicks said.
Many companies are developing and testing autonomous vehicles, like California-based Anduril, which touts an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle “optimized for a variety of defense and commercial mission types” including long-range oceanographic sensing, mine countermeasures, and anti-submarine warfare.
– Tactical software –
Powered by AI and capable of synthesizing mountains of data collected by satellites, radars, sensors, and intelligence services, tactical software can offer human planners a real edge.
“Everyone within the (Department of Defence) needs to understand that data is actually the ammunition in an AI war,” Alexandr Wang, the boss of Scale AI, told a US Congressional hearing this year.
“We have the largest fleet of military hardware in the world. This fleet generates 22 terabytes of data every day. And so if we can properly set up and instrument this data that’s being generated into pools of AI-ready datasets, then we can create a pretty insurmountable data advantage when it comes to military use of artificial intelligence.”
Scale AI has a contract to deploy a language model on a classified network of a major US Army unit.
Its chatbot — disarmingly named “Donovan” — should allow commanders to plan and act within minutes, rather than weeks, according to the company.
Ottawa, Google reach deal to support Canadian media
The Canadian government and Google have reached a deal to support the country’s media, heading off an imminent threat by the digital giant to block news on its platform, sources said on Wednesday.
That threat was made in response to Ottawa’s Online News Act, which was due to come into force on December 19. Meta has also pushed back against the looming regulations.
Two sources familiar with the months-long negotiations told AFP the two sides had agreed on a framework that would establish regular payments by Google to help Canadian media.
Several Canadian media said it would see Canadian news continue to be shared on Google’s platforms in return for the company making annual payments to Canadian news companies in the range of Can$100 million.
The amount is less than the government had estimated the compensation should be, but heads off a potential online blackout for news in Canada, where Google and Meta are the dominating platforms.
The agreement will reportedly allow Google to negotiate with a single group representing all Canadian media, rather than one-on-one deals that it feared risked opening it up to massive payouts.
“It is one more solution to ensure the viability of the media and restore a balance between commercial platforms,” Radio-Canada quoted an unnamed source as saying.
The Online News Act builds on similar legislation introduced in Australia and aims to support a struggling Canadian news sector that has seen a flight of advertising dollars and hundreds of publications closed in the last decade.
Meta and Google, which together control about 80 percent of all online advertising revenue in Canada, worth billions of dollars, have been accused of draining cash away from traditional news organizations while using news content for free.
Ottawa had estimated the Online News Act could cost the pair a combined Can$230 million (US$170 million) by requiring them to make commercial deals with Canadian news outlets, or face binding arbitration.
According to the original draft regulation unveiled in September, the rules would apply to companies with global annual revenues in excess of Can$1 billion, operating a search engine or social media platform actively used by at least 20 million users and that distributes news.
That effectively means only Google and Meta would be affected.
Meta has called the bill “fundamentally flawed” and since August has blocked access in Canada to news articles on its Facebook and Instagram platforms.
UAE to pump CO2 into rock as carbon capture debate rages
High in remote mountains in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, a new plant will soon take atmospheric CO2 and pump it into rock — part of controversial attempts to target planet-heating emissions without abandoning fossil fuels.
Using novel technology developed by Omani start-up 44.01, the solar-powered plant will suck carbon dioxide from the air, dissolve it in seawater and inject it deep underground, where it will mineralise over a period of months.
The new site on the Gulf of Oman is funded by state oil giant ADNOC, whose CEO Sultan Al Jaber is president of the UN’s COP28 climate talks and chairman of Masdar, a renewable energies company.
The first CO2 injection is expected during COP28 which starts on Thursday in nearby Dubai, and where the debate over hydrocarbons will be a key battle between campaigners and the oil lobby.
“We believe this volume of rocks here in the UAE has the potential to store gigatons of CO2,” ADNOC’s chief technology officer Sophie Hildebrand told AFP during a tour of the facility this week.
“ADNOC has committed $15 billion to decarbonisation projects,” she added, declining to say how much was spent on the Fujairah plant.
The UAE is the world’s seventh largest oil producer, and plans to invest $150 billion by 2027 to expand its oil and gas production capacity.
Oil producers are throwing their weight behind carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as a global warming solution despite criticism from climate experts who caution it is insufficient to tackle the crisis.
With little investment and few projects in operation around the world so far, the technology is currently nowhere near the scale needed to make a difference to global emissions.
– ‘Unproven at scale’ –
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the existing fossil fuel infrastructure — without the use of carbon capture — will push the world beyond the desired limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
At the plant in Fujairah, one of the UAE’s seven sheikhdoms, giant fans extract CO2 directly from the surrounding atmosphere.
Liquid CO2 is stored in vertical tanks, then converted into gas and dissolved in seawater that will be injected into a well that is one kilometre (0.6 mile) deep.
“It will be around eight months for the CO2 to be fully mineralised in the subsurface from the moment of injection,” said Talal Hasan, CEO of 44.01.
The company, one of the 2022 winners of the UK’s Earthshot Prize, has already carried out a test injection of around 1.2 tons of CO2 in Oman.
“This is a 10 to 15 times scale-up of the Oman pilot,” said Hasan.
The “target rate is one ton of CO2 per day for an initial period of 10 days,” he added.
When asked about cost, he said the aim is to make it competitive with more conventional carbon storage techniques.
“Our target is to eventually reach a cost of about $15 per ton of CO2 sequestered, not including the cost of the actual capture of the CO2,” he said.
Jaber, the COP28 president and head of ADNOC, has said climate diplomacy should focus on phasing out oil and gas emissions — not necessarily the fossil fuels themselves.
Climate campaigners have raised concerns about the influence of fossil fuel interests at COP28, where the benefits of carbon capture will be strongly pushed.
“When negotiating parties speak of phasing down unabated fossil fuels, they are excluding those fuels whose emissions were mitigated by carbon capture and storage,” said Karim Elgendy, associate fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think tank.
“The issue with carbon capture and storage technologies is that they are unproven at scale,” he said.
Big Tech in charge as ChatGPT turns one
A year after the history-making release of ChatGPT, the AI revolution is here, but the recent boardroom crisis at OpenAI, the super app’s company, has erased any doubt that Big Tech is in charge.
In some ways, the discreet reveal of ChatGPT on November 30 last year was the revenge of the geeks, the unsung researchers and engineers who have been quietly building generative AI behind the scenes.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, a well-known figure in technology circles, but still little known beyond that, with the release of ChatGPT made sure that this unheralded AI tech would get the attention it deserves.
ChatGPT became the fastest adopted app in history (since taken over by Meta’s Threads) as users marveled at the generation of poems, recipes — or whatever the internet could muster — in just seconds.
Altman’s gamble catapulted the 38-year-old Stanford dropout to household name stardom — making him a sort of philosopher king of AI with world leaders and tycoons hanging on to his every word.
With AI, “you’re in the business of making and selling things you can’t put your hands on,” said University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara and author of “The Code”, a history of Silicon Valley.
“Having a figurehead of someone who can explain it, especially when it’s advanced technology, is really important,” she added.
– ‘Religious fundamentalism’ –
Altman’s devotion to AI can often seem quasi-religious.
OpenAI’s acolytes are confident that the world will be a better place if they are given free rein (and cash) to build artificial general intelligence – AI at the same level or beyond the capabilities of the human mind.
But the high costs of that sacred mission forced an alliance with Microsoft, the world’s second biggest company, which operates with profit, not altruism, as its goal.
Microsoft pledged $13 billion for OpenAI earlier this year, and Altman redirected the company on a money-making trajectory to help justify the investment.
This eventually sparked this month’s boardroom rebellion by those — including OpenAI’s chief scientist — who believe that the money-makers should be kept at bay.
There is “religious fundamentalism at play here,” venture capitalist Dave Morin said in a podcast for The Information after Altman was unceremoniously fired from OpenAI only to be reinstated five days later.
The AI research community have “almost deified this technology,” he added.
When the battle erupted, Microsoft defended Altman and OpenAI’s young staff all backed him too, aware that the future of the company came with the revenues that kept the computers humming, not lofty ideas on how AI should or should not be used.
– AI agent –
This tension between AI saving the world or ruining it has marked the year since the ChatGPT launch.
Elon Musk, for example, signed a letter calling for a pause in AI innovations to only months later start his own company, xAI, joining an increasingly crowded market.
Google, Meta and Amazon have all weaved promises of AI into their company announcements and invested in AI startups.
Killer robot or magic wand, corporations in all sectors are signing up to try AI, usually through their cloud providers, Microsoft, Google or Amazon or from OpenAI.
“The time from learning that generative AI was a thing to actually deciding to spend time building applications around it has been the shortest I’ve ever seen for any type of technology,” said Rowan Curran, an analyst at Forrester Research.
But fears remain rife that bots might “hallucinate,” churning out false, nonsensical or offensive material so company efforts are modest for now.
One attempt is the AI agent, a sort of amped up chatbot that can help office workers trowel through emails, write memos, or have more fun while instant messaging.
Software programmers vaunt the powers at developer collaboration platform Github.
“It’s about being able to get the benefits of AI broadly disseminated to everyone,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said this month.
The rush to AI ramps up fear of dangers such as human extinction, and societal concerns like bias, job displacement and disinformation on an industrial scale.
Users creating pornographic deepfakes of a classmate or biased AI weeding out loan applicants are where regulators should be focused, industry observers argue.
– ‘Capitalists won’ –
Whatever the next chapter for AI, it won’t get written without tech giants like Microsoft, which could soon land a seat on the company’s board in the fallout of the boardroom drama.
“We saw yet another Silicon Valley battle between the idealists and the capitalists, and the capitalists won,” said historian O’Mara.
Nor will the next chapter of AI get written without Nvidia, the manufacturer of AI’s secret ingredient, the graphics processing unit, or GPU, a powerful chip that is indispensible to train AI.
Tech giant, startup or researcher — everyone must get their hands on those Taiwan-made chips, which are both expensive and hard to come by.
Big tech companies — Microsoft, Amazon, Google — are at the front of the line.
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