Redefining Human Control: Event at the UN’s Meeting on Lethal Autonomy

Last week, the UN again took up the issue of lethal autonomy in its Group of Government Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (or LAWS), a meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Over the past few years, there has been a growing consensus within the CCW that human involvement in the targeting process is a solution to the risks posed by LAWS. With this consensus, the question then becomes: what is the precise nature of this human involvement? Often this involvement is described in terms of the decision to use the system, akin to a finger on the trigger. Thus human involvement becomes a human making the decision to pull the trigger.

An event at last week’s GGE argued that this view is too narrow. Entitled “The Human-Machine Relationship: Lessons From Military Doctrine and Operations,” the event was organized by CNA’s Center for Autonomy and AI and the University of Amsterdam. The event was attended by officials and diplomats, including the ambassador to the Netherlands. Dr. Lewis, CAAI Director, was joined by Merel Ekelhof, a Ph.D. researcher at the VU University of Amsterdam, and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Matt King.

Merel Ekelhof is known to the UN community as the person to first introduce the idea of human involvement spanning across the entire military targeting cycle, introducing the idea back in 2016. The event took that idea and showed specific ways which this human involvement can take. Lt Col King discussed legal requirements for the use of force and how this was satisfied in his personal involvement in targeting decisions in the Coalition Air Operations Center in Qatar in 2017. Then Dr. Lewis walked the group through several real world examples of incidents involving fratricide and civilian casualties, how humans are not infallible, and how broader human involvement outside of the trigger pull decision can create a safety net that can reduce the risks of autonomous systems.

As the meeting closed, Ambassador Gill (presiding over the GGE) suggested a model for human involvement that takes on this view of broader human involvement in the use of lethal force. The below picture (dubbed the “sunrise” chart by the UK delegation) shows his initial thoughts in this regard. CAAI is developing a follow-on report for the next GGE to be available at the end of August, where we will provide additional details and observations consistent with this broader view. Stay tuned!

GGE pic on human control

For more information, see the CAAI report: Redefining Human Control.

Russia Races Forward on AI Development

The recent 2017 statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that whoever masters AI will get to rule the world should be interpreted as a recognition of Russia’s current place in this unfolding technology race, and of the need by the nation’s government, private sector, and the military to marshal the needed resources to persevere in this domain. This is already beginning to happen. The Russian government is increasingly developing and funding various AI-related projects, many under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense and its affiliated institutions and research centers. All this government activity has apparently infused many Russian developers with new confidence. Indeed, some are claiming that AI may arrive in just a few years’ time. It is even engendering hope that the country might at long last develop an infrastructure for turning theoretical knowledge, long the strength of its scientific community, into practical solutions. There are in fact practical developments in the Russian military-industrial complex that seek to incorporate certain AI elements in existing and future missile, aircraft, electronic warfare (EW), unmanned systems, and other tech. Russians also expect AI to help automate the analysis of satellite imagery and radar data, by quickly identifying targets and picking out unusual behavior by a enemy ground or airborne forces.

However, based on the available evidence, Western militaries need not be immediately alarmed about the arrival of AI-infused Russian weapons with next-generation capabilities — except, perhaps, in the field of EW. Western and Chinese efforts are currently well ahead of Russian initiatives, in terms of funding, infrastructure, and practical results. But the Russian government is clearly aiming to marshal its existing academic and industrial resources for AI breakthroughs — and just might achieve them.

Read more here: Defense One

For the first time, Russia is showcasing unmanned military systems at a military parade

On April 18, 2018, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that this year’s military parade in Moscow that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in WWII will feature new and advanced weaponry. Specifically, he noted that for the first time ever, “the Uran-9 combat multifunctional robotic system, the Uran-6 multipurpose mine-clearance robotic vehicle and Korsar short-range drones” will be showcased along other land and air weapons.

This announcement is momentous. Victory Day parades are back in fashion in Russia, after a brief hiatus from the annual military pageantry of the Soviet days. At the parade itself, the latest and legacy technologies are displayed – from WWII-era tanks to the latest combat vehicles, missiles and airplanes. All technology displayed on parade was/is in regular use, so it was probably just a matter of time before Russians started showing off their unmanned military systems.

Over the past several years, Russian Federation has made great strides in developing a wide variety of unmanned aerial, ground and sea/underwater vehicles. Of these, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have seen extensive use in Russian operations, along with a growing number of unarmed ground vehicles (UGV) for demining and ISR missions. That is why Russia’s choice to display these particular unmanned systems is so interesting – of the three vehicles named, only unarmed Uran-6 has seen actual operational use, most notably in Syria. Uran-9 has been undergoing testing and evaluation by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and this particular UGV, given its PR-ready look of a small-scale tank, has been shown extensively at various domestic and international exhibitions. Moreover, Korsar UAV is a virtually unknown vehicle – back in 2015-2016, there were announcements that its production would commence in 2017 – however, the manufacturer of this UAV did not seem to start mass production, which is presumed to start this year. In fact, Russia operates an entire flotilla of UAVs that have seen extensive operational use in Ukraine and Syria – short-range Eleron-3, longer-ranged Orlan-10(the most numerous UAV in the Russian military), and long-range Forpost (itself a licensed copy of an Israeli Searcher UAV).

There are other smaller UAVs in Russian service that have been growing in numbers and importance as key mission multipliers for the Russian forces. The absence of these battle-tested and available UAVs is curious, in light of the actual decision to showcase unmanned systems in the first place. On the UGV side, while Russian military in Syria used numerous UGVs for ISR and demining, most were small and may not make for good exhibition owning to their size. Still – Russian military is in fact evaluating two mid-sized UGVs that have underwent extensive trials and are ready to be incorporated into actual use – armed “Soratnik” and “Nerehta.” The absence of these two vehicles from May 9 parade is also curious, given extensive publicity they were getting over the past 24 months. Additionally, Russians have already showcased “Platforma-M” small guard UGV at May 9 Victory parades in Kaliningrad as far back as 2014, and will do so this year as well.Finally, if all the selected unmanned systems would be shown on top of military trucks – instead of a potentially more crowd-pleasing movement on their own – its also interesting that another key unmanned systems will be absent on that day – Orion-E long-range UAV that was unveiled with great fanfare at last year’s military exhibition.

In the end, its up to Moscow to select what its citizens and the international community will be seeing during the parade. The issues concerning the selection of one particular unmanned system over another may have to do with logistics, internal politics or other factors. Still, selecting an unknown UAV over several others that have proven themselves in service is a curious decision. Perhaps Russia is saving these other unmanned vehicles for future parades. And speaking of which – Moscow is in fact a latecomer to showcasing UAS in such a setting. Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China and Iran are among the growing number of nations displaying domestic and imported unmanned military systems on military parades. May 9 is definitely not the last time Russia will showcase its unmanned military systems – given how many resources it is dedicating to their design, production and eventual use.

Samuel Bendett is an Associate Research Analyst at CNA and a Fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.


What is this Blog about?

CNA launched the Center for Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence (CAAI) as a direct result of the rapid, even explosive, growth in AI in recent years. Recall that it was less than 2 years ago (in the spring of 2016) that Google’s DeepMind‘s AlphaGo Go-playing AI defeated multiple world-champion Go player Lee Sedol in a landmark event that – prior to the match, and given Go’s complexity compared to chess – most AI experts believed was years (perhaps decades) in the future. Now, consider the fact that as remarkable as AlphaGo’s defeat of Lee Sedol was, it arguably pales in comparison with the advances made to AlphaGo‘s learning algorithm in the months following that landmark match. A research paper received by the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature in April 2017 (and subsequently published online on 18 October 2017) announced that a new Go playing AI called AlphaGo Zero achieved superhuman performance, winning 100–0 against AlphaGo. Moreover, this new machine learning algorithm accomplished this by starting tabula rasa (i.e., entirely through self-play, without any human-based gaming knowledge or data) and did so in roughly 3 days (compared to the several-months-long training required by the original AlphaGo)!

How might AI evolve in the months and years ahead, and what are the military implications of this “technology”? While CAAI has been stood up to address this basic question (see the first batch of papers that the Center has published since its launch) and  research reports, and news of workshops, symposia, and other events will always appear on CAAI’s main website, this blog is envisioned as a more timely repository of “breaking news” as it pertains to AI, machine learning, and autonomy, and as a general forum for public discussion of ongoing projects. As such, it is also intended as a complement, of sorts, to another CAAI initiative, namely a weekly series of 20-30 min long podcasts (called AI-on-AI) that explore the latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and autonomy. Where the podcasts have only enough time to mention and outline a few of the “most interesting” news items that caught the ears and eyes of the editors in-between their recording sessions, this blog provides an opportunity to expand on one or more major stories, to provide additional background, and/or to link directly to original sources. This blog will also tap heavily into CNA’s repository of in-house experts on autonomy, AI, and drones; cyber security; defense technology; and other related areas.

All visitors to our blog are encouraged to participate in the discussion with their own news, comments, and speculations about how AI and autonomy might evolve.

CNA’s New Center for Autonomy and AI

In Oct 2017, CNA launched its new Center for Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence (CAAI), with Dr. Larry Lewis named as Director.

Throughout history, the ability to adapt technological advances to warfighting has led to fundamental changes in how war is conducted. Examples include the development of the crossbow, gunpowder-powered projectile weapons, rockets and jet aircraft, and precision guided munitions. Autonomy and AI represent revolutionary technologies that will change the future of warfare. They offer opportunities to the U.S. for countering and deterring emerging threats, addressing security challenges and advancing U.S. national interests.

But this opportunity is by no means certain, since autonomy also offers potential asymmetric advantages to peer-competitors, some of which have been pursuing these capabilities aggressively. Additionally, rapid innovation in the private sector—including commercial research and development efforts in autonomy and AI that dwarf that of the U.S. military—creates challenges for the U.S. to quickly identify and integrate cutting edge technological developments. Finally, there are potential dangers of this technology that should be guarded against, including potential unpredictability and the potential of civilian casualties in some operational contexts. Though much of the emerging technology is new, there are still many opportunities to avoid challenges and missteps that have been seen before, by learning from past lessons observed in U.S. operations and institutional processes.

Given the impact autonomy and AI will have on the character of warfare, CNA created CAAI (hereafter referred to as the “Center”) to focus on these emerging technologies and their contribution to national security. The Center capitalizes on the ability to leverage over 250 experienced researchers, many with advanced degrees and holding wide expertise and experience in a spectrum of disciplines, and connect them with government, private industry, and other stakeholders. The Center combines CNA’s strengths and experience in military operations with focused expertise in autonomy and AI. Its goal is to provide technical, strategic and operational insights and connect government and private stakeholders to make sure the U.S. is at the forefront in this rapidly evolving area.