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AI-generated Images and the Future Operating Environment

Introduction

The future is uncertain.  Yet, we still attempt to plan for an uncertain future.  Since 2001, the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Global Strategic Trends programme has sought to ‘identify the key drivers of change that will shape and reshape our world’. Global Strategic Trends is supported by the Future Operating Environment publication, which ‘aims to provide a long-term analysis of the key characteristics of the operating environment in 2035’.  While the data exists in these publications, bringing them to life might seem like a work of fiction.  By exploring future worlds through an AI-generated lens, I strongly believe the images produced can help us imagine different future operating environments and facilitate conversations about the implications for defence in an uncertain future.

Future Worlds

The MoD’s current Global Strategic Trends publication articulates four future worlds:  Multilateralism, Multipolarity, Network of actors, and Fragmentation.  These worlds are defined using two variables: the distribution of power and cooperation.  The publication states that ‘distribution of power varies between centralised power (where states are the main actors) at one end of the spectrum, and diffused power (where state power is eroded and the power of non-state actors increases)’.  The level of cooperation varies from full and open cooperation at one end of the spectrum to intense competition between actors at the other.1 Global Strategic Trends builds on these future worlds with a specific focus on conflict and security.  Each of these future worlds will be considered in turn.

AI-generated future worlds
The Four Future Worlds (Global Strategic Trends, 6th Ed)

 

Methodology

Bing Image Creator was used to create all four AI-generated images used in this article.  The number of variables for each image differed depending on the factors identified as appropriate for that future world.  For each image, several versions were produced as factors were added and removed to adjust the images until the image met the author’s vision of that specific future world.  This approach clearly introduces a number of biases – both those within the the image creator as well as the author’s own in selecting specific images.

Multilateralism

Global Strategic Trends sees a Multilateralism world as one where:

‘States are the most influential actors in the global order. Almost all states use multilateral institutions to address global challenges, define legal frameworks and settle disputes. Good global governance is a characteristic of this world.’2 

With specific reference to conflict and security, we are told that ‘cooperation reduces the requirement for defence spending’ and ‘defence capabilities are frequently employed on operations other than war, for example, humanitarian and disaster relief operations’.3 The following terms were used to generate the image for the Multilateralism world: powerful states, multinational institutions, global governance, peace, military providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief, and impressionism. 

MultilateralismBing Image Creator: powerful states, multinational institutions, global governance, peace, military provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief, impressionism. Generated with AI: 2 November 2023 at 1:52 pm
The Multilateralism World
(Generated by author using Bing Image Creator on 2 November 2023)

The image shows a world being gently lifted out of the water by a pair of hands.  Only one pair of hands perhaps symbolises the unity of those nations represented by the flags.  The dark clouds on the horizon and the rising waters could symbolise the impact of climate change and the effort required to address the global challenges brought on by climate change.  Although military capabilities from various nations surround the world, they appear separate from it.  The ground forces, in particular, appear to be standing idly by, and this brings into question the role of the military in this future world. 

In a multilateralism world, future leaders are likely to unite against global challenges such as climate change, and such ‘cooperation reduces the need for defence spending.’4 If this is the case, and the focus shifts to humanitarian aid and disaster relief, will nations see militaries shrink to small but specialised teams capable of supporting humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations?

Multipolarity

Global Strategic Trends see a Multipolarity world as one where:

‘Major powers are the main international actors who form blocs with other geographically close or like-minded states.  While states within a bloc cooperate under the leadership of the major power, the blocs compete for power and influence.’5

With specific reference to conflict and security, Global Strategic Trends notes that ‘China’s growing economic, military and diplomatic capability could equal, or even surpass, that of the United States in the coming decades.’6 We are also told that ‘States are more willing to use military force to achieve objectives’ with Alliance capabilities ‘prioritised for territorial defence, rather than expeditionary operations’.  The upshot of this is that ‘deterrence is key to conflict prevention, resulting in increased defence spending.’7 The following terms were used to generate the image for the Multipolarity world: powerful states, alliances, competition for power and influence, USA vs China, military might, futuristic, impressionism.  

MultipolarityBing Image Creator: powerful states, alliances, competition for power and influence, USA vs China, military might, futuristic, impressionism. Generated with AI: 2 November 2023 at 2:27 pm
The Multipolarity World
(Generated by the author using Bing Image Generator on 2 November 2023)

 

This image, by design, represents two powerful states competing for dominance and perhaps brings into question the multipolarity perspective.  If major powers form blocs, how likely is it that three blocs will emerge? One bloc will undoubtedly be led by the United States, with another by China.  Possibilities for a third bloc would include the European Union, although arguably, they would align with the United States rather than trying to create a distinct bloc on their own.  Russia and its allies could form a third bloc, although they are likely to align with China.  Finally, and perhaps most plausibly, India and others could form a third block. 

Whether multipolarity or bipolarity, what is striking about this image is the array of missiles facing each other, supporting the idea of an increase in defence spending and potentially an arms race signalling a return to a Cold War.  For major power blocs to be able to vie for dominance, they will need the full spectrum of military capabilities unless they can rely on other nations to provide niche capabilities.  This reliance on an ally’s military capability will likely strengthen the stability of the relationships within the bloc.

Network of actors

Global Strategic Trends sees a networked world as one where:

‘Power is shared between a variety of state and non-state actors. Corporations and megacity leaders are the main non-state actors, but all actors cooperate to address global challenges and provide effective governance.’8

With specific reference to conflict and security, Global Strategic Trends notes that ‘states and corporations cooperate in a mutual effort to provide defence and security, nationally and internationally,’ and ‘defence spending is reduced, and states use private security companies widely,’9 The following terms were used to generate an image using AI to represent the Network of actors world: network of actors, cooperation, US, UK, EU, China, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Saudi Aramco, global challenges addressed together, private security companies, futuristic, impressionism.  

Network of actorsBing Image Creator: network of actors, cooperation, US, UK, EU, China, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Saudi Aramco, global challenges addressed together, private security companies, futuristic, impressionism. Generated with AI: 6 November 2023 at 0:29 pm
The Network of actors world                                                         (Generated by the author using Bing Image Creator on 6 November 2023)

 

This image attempts to depict the network linking states and non-state actors.  In this world, cooperation is key, but the interconnectedness of everything makes competition or conflict more difficult.  As with the Multilateralism world, there is little need for defence.  Corporations and megacities seek to provide their own security.  The very definitions of state security and defence are questioned in this world, and identifying the factors that underpin future operating environment will be a real challenge.  Who provides security is dispersed amongst the network of actors? If states are able to maintain a military, who are they working for and what is their role?

Fragmentation

Global Strategic Trends sees a future world characterised by Fragmentation fas one where:

‘States, corporations, megacities and other non-state actors, including organised criminal and dissident groups, compete for power. Cooperation is rare and only sought when there is a benefit to further an actor’s interests.’10

With specific reference to conflict and security, Global Strategic Trends tells us that ‘states are no longer the principal defence and security actor,’ and ‘violent extremist organisations proliferate.’11 The following terms were used to generate an image using AI to represent the Fragementation World: competition, states, megacities, criminal actors, dissident groups, futuristic, and impressionism.  

FragmentationBing Image Creator: competition, states, megacities, criminal actors, dissident groups, futuristic, impressionism. Generated with AI: 6 November 2023 at 1:18 pm
The Fragmentation World
(Generated by the author using Bing Image Generator 6 November 2023)

 

What is striking about this image is that the focus is on an unidentified group of actors.  One can easily imagine this scene on every street, in every town, city or megacity, and in every country around the world.  The proliferation of violence is the only constant in this world.  The future operating environment and role of the military is unclear in a Fragmented world.  If states cannot manage the internal conflict, it is unlikely they can even consider external conflict.  Perhaps the role of the military is focused on the defence of the government and little else? 

Conclusion

What is remarkable about these images is that where the focus was cooperation.  The images feature the earth as a central image; however, where the focus was competition, the earth was not featured at all and the focus turned to the actors.  Does this suggest that the earth will be destroyed unless cooperation is sought? Perhaps this is a stretch of the imagination, yet these AI-generated images provide a useful tool to help us consider the future operating environment and the implications for defence.  To really understand the extent to which AI-generated images can help us to consider the future operating environment, and specifically to overcome biases, a diverse team of people needs to individually create images and then discuss the similarities and differences between the images they have created and selected.  Perhaps something that Defence should embrace now to support their Strategic Trends Programme?

Tracy MacSephney

Tracy MacSephney is a 1SL Fellow working with the Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre.

She has a MA in Creative Writing (KUL), a MA in Defence Studies (KCL) and an interest in Useful Fiction.

 

Footnotes

  1. Global Strategic Trends, 2018, p.21.
  2. Ibid, 22.
  3. Ibid, 146.
  4. Ibid, 146.
  5. Ibid, 24.
  6. Ibid, 126.
  7. Ibid, 146.
  8. Ibid, 21.
  9. Ibid, 146.
  10. Ibid, 21.
  11. Ibid, 146.

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