Taking AI to the battlefront

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, has announced a massive £16.5 billion budget for defence over a period of four years. Not only does it put the UK in the top position in Europe in defence spending, and second in NATO, it has put the spotlight on the use of artificial intelligence (AI), writes Professor Farid Meziane, Head of the University of Derby’s Data Science Research Centre.

Joining an exclusive club

Along with the biggest investment in defence spending since the end of the Cold War, the Prime Minister confirmed that the UK will now join an exclusive club of countries integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) in national defence and security.

The announcement came just over a week after the release of the updated US Congress report on “Artificial Intelligence and National Security”[1]. This report acknowledged that China is a leading competitor, with a national plan released in 2017, that Russia has been very active in this area and that member states of the European Union currently complete the list of countries with strong ambitions.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning as emerging and disruptive technologies, have been applied with success and adopted in many other fields in the last decade. In some instances, AI systems outperformed human experts, such as medical image recognition.

Scientists from Google’s Health and Deep Mind units and Imperial College London developed an AI system that is capable of surpassing human experts in breast cancer prediction.

Other areas of applications include decision making, financial analysis, targeted marketing and object and voice recognition.

A role in defence

In defence, AI can play an important and crucial role in future conflicts.

Most applications developed for civilian use can find their way into military and defence applications.

Autonomous vehicles in the form of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAV), more commonly referred to as “drones”, allow military operations to be carried out in a more efficient and less risky manner.

UAVs use vision, image processing, object recognition and more AI-related techniques that allow for fast and decisive actions without the risk associated with piloted vehicles where human life is always at risk.  

Robots are another type of autonomous system that can provide superiority in a conflict as they enable reductions in the number of soldiers deployed and, hence, casualties. They can also expand the battle space as they can access difficult and dangerous terrains and widen the field of vision. 

Predicting and preventing

Cybersecurity is becoming an integral part of many nations’ security. Cyber-attacks can come in different shapes and forms and can target infrastructure, security data and individuals. AI is used to predict such attacks by using the large amounts of data collected through networks and other activities and applying machine learning algorithms. As well as predicting, AI canalso prevent such attacks.

Nowadays, large amounts of data are collected through video surveillance cameras, satellites, phones and computers. While linking this information and inferring decisions and conclusions can be difficult for humans, this is more achievable using AI techniques which are able to connect different objects and events. 

AI can be used in many other scenarios to gain information superiority, provide speed in decision making, allow scalability and improve logistics.

Realising national ambitions

China has recently announced its ambition to become the global leader in AI research by 2030. Other countries have taken notice of this announcement and have started investing and developing national strategies on the use of AI in defence, with the US Congress identifying this as one of their most urgent priorities.

The announcement of the UK Prime Minister should be seen as a strong statement that the UK will not be left behind, and will fully play its role at national and international levels to defend its interests and infrastructure and be at the same level as its partners.

This will probably be followed by a clear national strategy for the development of AI systems, their integration in defence systems and applications, as well as the wider implication of this investment to the post-COVID economic recovery and strengthening UK research in AI.

New jobs and a role for HE

The announcement also included the creation of an estimated 10,000 jobs every year. To achieve these objectives, the government must work very closely with both the private and public sectors.

The private sector is currently leading in developing AI applications and their deployment in many sectors of the industry and services.

Universities have a unique opportunity to get involved with the research and application projects and have an important role to play.

Not only are most of the jobs that are needed to drive this strategy yet to be created, up-skilling programmes in the form of Masters degrees, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and seminars will need to be developed and supported to avoid a shortage of skills that could jeopardise the success of such an ambitious programme.


[1] https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R45178.pdf

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