Fundamentally changing the nature of war.

I generally try to keep a distance from ‘the real world’ and apocalyptic visions of what AI might do, but I decided to pass on some clips from this technology essay in The Wall Street Journal that makes some very plausible predictions about the future of armed conflicts between political entities:

The future of warfare won’t be decided by
weapons systems but by systems of weapons, and those systems will cost
less. Many of them already exist, whether they’re the Shahed
attacking shipping in the Gulf of Aden or the Switchblade drones
destroying Russian tanks in the Donbas or smart seaborne mines around
Taiwan. What doesn’t yet exist are the AI-directed systems that will
allow a nation to take unmanned warfare to scale. But they’re coming.

At its core, AI is a technology based on
pattern recognition. In military theory, the interplay between pattern
recognition and decision-making is known as the OODA loop— observe,
orient, decide, act. The OODA loop theory, developed in the 1950s by Air
Force fighter pilot John Boyd, contends that the side in a conflict
that can move through its OODA loop fastest will possess a decisive
battlefield advantage.

For example, of the
more than 150 drone attacks on U.S. forces since the Oct. 7 attacks, in
all but one case the OODA loop used by our forces was sufficient to
subvert the
attack. Our warships and
bases were able to observe the incoming drones, orient against the
threat, decide to launch countermeasures and then act. Deployed in
AI-directed swarms, however, the same drones could overwhelm any
human-directed OODA loop. It’s impossible to launch thousands of
autonomous drones piloted by individuals, but the computational
capacity of AI makes such swarms a possibility.

This will transform warfare. The race won’t be for the best platforms
but for the best AI directing those platforms. It’s a war of OODA loops,
swarm versus swarm. The winning side will be the one that’s developed
the AI-based decision-making that can outpace their adversary. Warfare
is headed toward a brain-on-brain conflict.

The Department of Defense is already researching a “brain-computer
interface,” which is a direct communications pathway between the brain
and an AI. A recent study by the RAND Corporation examining how such an
interface could “support human- machine decision-making” raised the
myriad ethical concerns that exist when humans become the weakest link
in the wartime decision-making chain. To avoid a nightmare future with
battlefields populated by fully autonomous killer robots, the U.S. has
insisted that a human decision maker must always remain in the loop
before any AI-based system might conduct a lethal strike.

But will our adversaries show similar restraint? Or would they be
willing to remove the human to gain an edge on the battlefield? The
first battles in this new age of warfare are only now being fought. It’s
easy to imagine a future, however, where navies will cease to operate
as fleets and will become schools of unmanned surface and submersible
vessels, where air forces will stand down their squadrons and stand up
their swarms, and where a conquering army will appear less like
Alexander’s soldiers and more like a robotic infestation.

Much like the nuclear arms race of the last century, the AI arms race
will define this current one. Whoever wins will possess a profound
military advantage. Make no mistake, if placed in authoritarian hands,
AI dominance will become a tool of conquest, just as Alexander expanded
his empire with the new weapons and tactics of his age. The ancient
historian Plutarch reminds us how that campaign ended: “When Alexander
saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds
to conquer.”

Ackerman and James Stavridis are the authors of “2054,” a novel that
speculates about the role of AI in future conflicts, just published by
Penguin Press. Ackerman, a Marine veteran, is the author of numerous
books and a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs.
Admiral Stavridis, U.S. Navy (ret.), was the 16th Supreme Allied
Commander of NATO and is a partner at the Carlyle Group.

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