Nov 17, 2021 - Technology

An insider's view of "algorithmic warfare"

Illustration of 0 and 1 in camouflage
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Artificial intelligence will "change the nature of war," according to Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Why it matters: Success on the battlefield will increasingly come down to the ability to make algorithmically aided decisions faster, and while the U.S. has long maintained a decisive technological advantage in warfare, its lead in AI is much narrower.

What they're saying: The ability to harness large numbers of intelligent systems crunching huge amounts of data from the battlefield will "take out some of the uncertainty around war," says Work, who served under President Obama and briefly President Trump, and who is now an advisory board member to the AI company SparkCognition Government Systems.

  • "The battle networks of the future will feature human-machine collaboration, and these things will operate at extremely high speed," he tells Axios. "These are going to make battle networks that do not have AI obsolete."

How it works: Think of AI less as a general than as the ultimate aide-de-camp, making sense of data from sensor networks and offering recommendation actions to commanders.

  • "You're going to have machine-to-machine communication once those plans are made, it will populate through the forces really fast," says Work.

The big picture: Speed kills in modern warfare, and the ability to analyze data and issue commands faster than your opponent can ensure battlefield dominance.

  • Work points to a recent Pentagon war game that pitted a group of veteran officers working on their own against less-seasoned officers assisted by AI.
  • Despite the experience gap, the younger officers — with AI — came out ahead, a sign that humans working in concert with machines can be more effective than either on their own.

The catch: Even with humans remaining in the loop, it's not clear how free flesh-and-blood commanders will be to reject AI recommendations if war is fought at the speed of AI rather than human beings.

  • Speed itself can also be dangerous, increasing the risk that a military conflict could spin out of control.
  • Work believes that one key is to train officers on how to work with AI "to get the best features of both humans and machines."

What to watch: The growing competition in algorithmic warfare with China, which Work says is ahead of the U.S. in several areas on AI, including access to data.

"The side with the best algorithms is going to have a decisive advantage."
— Robert Work, former deputy secretary of defense
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