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#WavellReviews “I, Warbot. The Dawn of Artificially Intelligent Conflict” by Kenneth Payne

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Available here from Hurst Publishers

AI this, and AI that.  Op-eds, think-tank reports and military concept notes tell us that AI is going to change things.  How, why, or to what extent; the answers to such questions are routinely less clear.  A cursory glance at the performance of driverless cars will tell you that there are no certainties when dealing with new and novel technologies.  Whilst the initial links with conflict and AI are often mentioned, an in-depth assessment of the possible and likely impact of AI on war and conflict have not been covered in sufficient depth outside of technical articles or thought-provoking futurology works such as Ghost Fleet or 2034.

Dr. Payne, a King’s College London academic, has therefore provided a much needed fill of a chasm in military reading circles.  He offers an overview of AI itself – what it can do and critically what it’s not very good at – and places it into the wider context of military history, capability and concepts.  Whilst he is very clear that his predictions are just that, he does offer a critical grounding in understanding AI, and some thoughts on where it might all be going.  ‘I, Warbot’ also covers the golden thread of how we think, both as military professionals routinely focused on the current threats, and also those involved in the wider profession of arms.  The trends that can be traced in weapon procurement to date (most notable in the development of air power) are, Dr. Payne argues, being directly transferred into how we think about modern technologies.  We are, he believes, limiting these capabilities and concepts by extrapolating current thinking into technologies that could offer so much more.

Dr Payne brings his predictions to life with some futurology work of his own.  Some futuristic vignettes using both current equipment types from some well-known defence disruptors are included.  His key takeaway is that the AI genie has already left the bottle and is working hard to ‘change the game’.  These vignettes are interwoven into popular culture too.  Using carefully selected famous and infamous sci-fi films, he explains some of the trends, and his own predictions.  This approach makes for a readable and relatable jaunt through what can be a quagmire of abbreviations and spurious defence project names.

‘I, Warbot’ digs into the details about how AI is already incorporated into many of the weapon system used across the globe today.  Often disguised by discussions about humans being ‘in’ or ‘on’ the loop, Dr. Payne does an honourable job of explaining how ‘clever’ or autonomous some of these systems actually are.  Equally useful is his explanation of how we may potentially end up spending as much time trying to understand these systems, as we will understanding how to fight them.

The two chapters on thinking, both human and machine, and how these incorporate into ‘human machine teaming’ are eye opening.  In a world where facts and proven hypothesis are slim, it is easy to get carried away with the impact of some of these developments and technologies.  Dr Payne does an excellent job of explaining to the reader, in a relatively simple and digestible way, what has worked to date in these research areas and what is showing promise.  From this he is able to explain where AI and the associated technologies will add value.  Is AI going to speed up decision making and help us sift through the mountains of data that we have available?  It already is.  Is it going to solve our grand strategy issues faced across the Western war fighting nations in the 21st Century?  Not in the near term, or probably the long term, if the analysis and results of AI today are anything to go by.

With the steady pace of technological developments, it is not clear how long this book will remain current, but you would be hard pushed to find such a wide ranging and clear analysis with the depth of insight and clarity that ‘I, Warbot’ offers.  It is written by an academic, and therefore comes with a rich bibliography and footnotes.  Nevertheless, it is accessible and useful for those wishing to open the Pandora’s box of AI, as well as for those with experience who wish to further their understanding.  Read it this year!

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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