Military intelligence: do robots have a place in the Australian Armed Forces?

AI has been saving civilian lives by improving healthcare, preventing accidents, and even collecting data to stop human traffickers. Now it’s finding its way into global defence forces. Automated assistants and AI advisers are just a couple of examples of robots reporting for duty. But what are the implications of James Cameron’s Terminator finally coming to reality?

In a move to give the finger to the enemy, the Australian government is funding work to advance hand gesture communication in military robots.

Having awarded Edith Cowan University (ECU) AUD $150,000, the primary objective is to give the ADF a tactical advantage by installing a front-facing camera on military robots. Soldiers can communicate with this camera using hand signals.

The key with all AI is to keep the human in control. ECU’s Dr Gilani believes “optimising the present-day utility of robotics technology… requires integrating robots into the human operating environment where they can be at least partially controlled by a human operator.”

So far along this sci-fi-like storyline, robots and AI have been used mainly in defence for cybersecurity, threat monitoring, and combat simulation. Robot soldiers are still a thing of the future (as far as we civilians know). 

AI is already an entrenched part of civilian society. But defence use cases are expanding, and military minds want to use AI for future wars. 

The real life Terminator

The ADF wants to use ‘human-machine teams’ to improve efficiency, increase combat power, and allow for better decision-making. The ultimate goal is higher survivability for human soldiers on the battlefield.

Over the next 10 to 20 years, six defence AI projects are planned, and the military is making strong headway, spending over AUD $19.1 billion on air, sea, and ground AI tech within this decade.

Scott Morrison has pledged to invest an additional AUD $454 million to speed up development on Boeing Australia’s Loyal Wingman project, the first military aircraft to be built and designed in Australia in 50 years.

The main goal is to deploy the Boeing Australia Ghost Bat program, an AI capable of controlling a fighter-like drone, with plans to enrol it into limited ADF service in 2024-2025.

But government institutions and major airline companies teaming up isn’t the only thing helping boost the ADF’s infrastructure. U.S. military tech startup Anduril has set up an Australian branch and plans to introduce Lattice, an “autonomous command and control platform”.

Sydney-held event In the Ops Room hosted Oculus VR and Anduril, where founder Palmer Luckey discussed the future of defence, geopolitics, and Australia’s future.

Luckey painted a picture of the future of war. “You’re going to see much larger numbers of systems. You can’t have billions of robots that are all acting together. If they all have to be individually piloted directly by a person, it’s just not going to work. Autonomy is going to be critical for that.”

With the ADF investing billions in AI-enabled projects, Luckey’s prediction of surveillance and AI weaponry dominating the battlefield is coming true. But what are the implications of Anduril and other military tech startups digging themselves into the ADF?

Robots and startups

The UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons has had trouble banning autonomous weapons due to countries funding billions into AI weapons projects.

Macalester College Professor James Dawes worries autonomous weapons will disrupt the current peace and “make the unsteady balances and fragmented safeguards of the nuclear world more unsteady and more fragmented.”

But Australia Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price believes introducing AI to the ADF will improve how the military operates and hopes to attract more AI startups in the future.

Outside of combat situations, alternative uses for AI solutions exist in the ADF outside of developing autonomous weapons of war.

Victorian startup Real Response won an AUD $669,000 contract to develop realistic medical training for ADF medics using AI.

With Virtual Tactical Combat Casualty Care (vTC3), ADF medics will be allowed to practice their medical skills in realistic scenarios including under fire, field care, and evacuation.

While the vTC3 was developed for the ADF, it could be used by friendly nations and emergency response services.

Militaries around the world are pouring billions into weaponized AI, but it’s up to Australian leaders if the country’s military prowess needs to be bolstered by AI-enabled solutions.

But the real winners are Aussie military AI startups. By accepting the Australian government’s contracts, the economy gets a boost all while strengthening the country’s defence capabilities.

Minister Price nets this as a win for both the civilian sector and the government: “These contracts will boost Australian businesses and build a strong sovereign capability that can develop and integrate world-leading AI technology into Australia’s Defence Force.”

As with all things defence related, there are political and moral considerations. Founders in the AI space must decide if their tech should contribute to wartime activities.

Google has already started down this barrel. In 2018 it faced widespread public backlash and a swathe of employee resignations for helping the Pentagon develop Project Maven – the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine served as a wake-up call for how AI tools are urgently needed on the battlefield.

NATO has announced a EUR $1 billion funding project that will invest in early-stage startups and VC funds developing key technologies such as AI, big data processing, and automation.

In Australia, the ASPI recommended developing a high-quality, technologically superior ADF that can deter China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.Due to increasing applications of AI in the military, the Global Artificial Intelligence In Military Market is worth USD $13 billion worldwide and is expected to grow at 12.9%.

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