On a Sleepery Slope: AI Regulators Fear Getting Drowned Out by Hype of Wars

Defence Industry

Berlin: A fighter jet hurtles toward an adversary head-on. Mere moments before a collision, it swerves — but not before dealing a lethal blow to its opponent.

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This risky manoeuvre would be reckless even for the most skilled pilot. But to artificial intelligence, such a simulation scenario showcases one of the most effective dogfighting techniques, scoring kill rates of nearly 100% against human pilots.

In a warfighting revolution turbocharged by the conflict in Ukraine, autonomous decision-making is quickly reshaping modern combat, experts said.

Weapons that can decide for themselves whom or what to target — and even when to kill — are entering military arsenals. They have experts worried that an uncontrolled arms race is emerging, and that warfare could become so fast-paced that humans cannot keep up.

It is the speed, in particular, that may prove a “slippery slope,” said Natasha Bajema, a senior research associate at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, a nongovernmental organisation. As the speed of conflict increases with greater autonomy on the battlefield, the incentives to delegate even more functions to the machines could become ever stronger.

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The appetite for more autonomy in weapons, fanned by combat in Ukraine and Gaza, has drowned out long-standing calls for limits on AI in military applications. But they still exist.

Ambassador Alexander Kmentt, the director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Department of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, called the scenario of trigger-pulling, AI-enabled robots a true “Oppenheimer moment,” a reference to the birth of the atomic bomb in the 1940s.

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Austria has been leading an international push to bring governments from around the world to the table to draft the rules of war for a new era.

In late April, the country’s government hosted the first global conference on autonomous weapon systems in Vienna’s grand Hofburg Palace. Kmentt said it exceeded his expectations.

Much of the Global South — a term sometimes used to couple countries that reject the hierarchy of world politics — now seems interested in restricting the technology, according to Kmentt, though little could be achieved without buy-in from the major global powers.