Dr Reuben Steff is looking at how Artificial Intelligence is going to have immense implications for New Zealand’s national security.
He is one of the organisers and speakers at the new Waikato Dialogue later this month, a symposium focusing on the implications of emerging disruptive technologies for international security and New Zealand. Key national and international speakers will be looking for solutions to some of the biggest challenges the country faces in this area. Organizers aim to make it an annual event, which will be a crucial focus for security in the Australasian region.
Dr Steff says private companies, governments and militaries around the world are already investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and this is beginning to have an influence on the global balance of power and the economic and military interactions of states.
So far, the bulk of analysis and commentary has focused on how large powerful states are adjusting to AI, and the implications of AI for small states is largely missing. Dr Steff believes New Zealand’s military is not prepared for the speed of change that is going to be necessary to adopt AI in the years to come. “We risk being reactive rather than proactive. AI will require new skills across the military, with training doctrine, recruitment and organisation structures having to adjust.”
At a broader level, New Zealand’s national security agencies will need to embrace change that allows for rapid adoption of AI technologies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will have to become much more informed about AI and related issues so it can credibly contribute to emerging debates in international organisations, especially about lethal autonomous robots.
New Zealand’s military currently has humans undertaking the majority of basic tasks, but AI-powered robotics could fundamentally change this. Robots can replace human soldiers, freeing them from simple tasks and allowing them to focus on more complex work. Dr Steff says tasks undertaken by AI-powered robots will, in some instances, be superior to humans. “They can be conducted at superhuman speeds, with greater levels of precision and reliability, for durations that exceed human endurance and in dangerous environments, reducing the risk to soldiers in the field. Eventually, they could even fight our wars for us”.
While robots fighting wars sounds like science fiction, it is rapidly becoming science fact. Israel has already deployed semi-automated military vehicles to patrol its borders, Russia is building small robot tanks that have remotely-operated machine guns and rocket launchers, and the U.S. military’s Loyal Wingman program will partner semi-autonomous unmanned F-16s with manned F-22s. The F-16s will protect the F-22 by reacting to electronic threats, jamming and carrying extra weapons.”
Some commentators contend that the next evolution in military operations will be forces shifting from fighting as a network to fighting as a swarm, with large numbers of small highly autonomous robots coordinating their actions on the battlefield, enabling greater mass, coordination, intelligence and speed of operations.
Can a small state such as New Zealand compete? Dr Steff says our size may actually be an advantage. “Software and ingenuity, rather than population size and natural resources, is becoming extremely important to a state’s prosperity and military capabilities. In this context, the metrics of international influence may come down to the quality of a state’s digital systems, sensors, high-speed networks, data protocols, and their ability to create a strong technological and science base supported by interdisciplinary teams of researchers.” At present, New Zealand may be falling behind, sliding downwards on the rankings of the Global Innovation Index - in 2012 it was the 13th most innovative economy, in 2018 it ranked 22nd.
New Zealand will also need to compete for top-tier international AI talent and balance government and commercial funding for AI development. Dr Steff says developing a national AI strategy would seem a logical initiative. “So too would creating a government agency focused on how AI can facilitate security, defence, and emergency response. Ultimately, we need to maximise our chances of establishing New Zealand as a world leader in AI and, right now, it appears the New Zealand government is missing the boat.”