How Algorithms Are Becoming The Best Defense Mechanism in War

How Algorithms Are Becoming The Best Defense Mechanism in War

Algorithms are becoming more and more commonplace in our society. Whether it’s getting the engagement for business, or using facial recognition as a means of identity checks. As a society, we’re becoming dependent on the algorithms of the digital era. Of course, these days, nothing is ever created without the military considering its uses in war. So, how are algorithms affecting the way the military forces, across the world, are going to behave, going forward?

What Are Algorithms?

Algorithms are essentially what comes before coding. It’s a set of rules, which the computer, website, game or app will follow, in order to execute a code in the right order. So, if we took a daily part of our lives and broke it down into an algorithm, we’d have something along the lines of:

  • I would like to walk to the park
  • In order to do this, I will need to get dressed (your code)
  • To get dressed, I should put on underwear, then my top and pants, then my coat and shoes (the algorithm).

Without popping on your undies first, you’re not going to feel comfortable walking to the park (well, you might – but that’s a personal preference). So, the rules are designed to be followed in exact order, in order for everything to go according to plan. In the same manner, we need the right algorithms, or else glitches occur in the coding. In other words, we’d be putting on a coat before our undies. And our walk to the park might spark some police interest.

Hey, it’s not a perfect explanation, but it covers the basics.

What’s This Got To Do With The Military?

Modern-day warzones are beginning to drain of human combatants. This is because the fight has been taken to the digital space. While combat used to be about pitting one force against another, while the leaders sat in their fortress. It is now based on creating the best hacking systems to uncover the codes of others, while seeking to protect our own codes. Where stealth and sheer force would traditionally be used to bust down the doors to bunkers, these can now be translated to hacking by stealth and forcing through data in order to corrupt the codes of others (while the leaders sit in their fortress, of course).

As our skies fill with satellites, our browsing on computers increases and our dependence on the digital becomes more potent, we create data. All of this data is sent back to analysts. Whether that’s Google mining data for the best ad revenue – or the military figuring out potential moves by their enemies.

Cracking that data takes a lot of time and energy, especially as our field of view increases.

Thus, there’s a new race in town – one in which we seek to create AI that decodes this data, faster than our competitors and enemies (whoever they might be now and in the future). However, our AI is limited, in terms of how much it can “think” and break down data that is more than just quantitative data (quantitative data = numbers and stats, qualitative data = longer information, such as how we feel about something).

Our current AI systems – at least, the ones in circulation – are based on very specific sets of data. So, patterns within speech, rather than the speech itself. Basic decision making on yes and no answers, but not the hesitation which might come with it. Or even our intelligence levels, where it can tell us our IQ but perhaps not our emotional intelligence.

In other words, some key moments in military movements would simply not be met. Yet we need to develop this, in order to keep up with all of the information the military receives and breaks down, before helping strategists to make their next, key decision. So, while the current media representation of “killer robots” seems to be all the rage, the truth is that we’re just looking to create digital gateways that translate data into something actionable.

Narrow Artificial Intelligence vs Artificial General Intelligence Algorithms

The whole killer robots narrative comes under what the data lovers refer to as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). This refers to beings that are sentient in the sense that they can continuously learn and improve – and it simply doesn’t exist yet. So, there will be no wars between robots or Pacific Rim style machines that can help us murder each other at speed.

Algorithms in warfare
Credit: Negative Space

Instead, we’re referring to Narrow Artificial Intelligence (NAI), which is AI made up of algorithms – and those algorithms have a very specific, narrow, task to complete. The US Department of Defence have a statement on their website, citing that “We’re in the very early days of a very long history of continued very rapid development in the AI field,” said William Scherlis, director of the Information Innovation Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Which likely means we still have some way to go before we can begin data mining effectively enough to win or avoid wars.

However, like all technology, once we crack the first few abilities, the rest will likely quickly follow. That is, of course, if you believe in Moore’s Law, whereby our abilities come twice as fast, in half the time, as time moves forward.

How Would Algorithms Affect War?

What’s important to know is that algorithmic warfare could dramatically change the military as we know it. In real time, it could allow users to rely on computers, in order to know what it is happening, before we would normally be aware anything is happening at all. Not only that, but our own responses and retaliation would be computed and carried out, far quicker than we could retaliate as humans. And therein lies the danger.

Anything that is capable of taking human life should be able to make the right ethical decisions, as well as the clear-cut, black-and-white options of kill or be killed. The Christmas Truce of the First World War, for example, would simply not have been an option. For this reason, there would need to undergo rigorous testing and evaluation before using AI in the field, for fear that it may act of its own accord.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Instead, what we’re more likely to see, are systems that will monitor combatants in the field, assess situations and provide possible opportunities to exploit weaknesses, avoid direct contact or act defensively/offensively. And, while this won’t be as cool as The Falcon’s Redwing in Captain America, or Crypto’s drones in Apex Legends, it’s still pretty decent tech to have on your side.



Editor-in-chief, lover of UX/UI and copywriter by trade. Wendy can usually be found ranting to herself over on Twitter, educating herself about health and wellness, parenting or gaming. Luckily, she doesn't do all of these things at the same time - though you'd be surprised how often they cross over.

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