With artificial intelligence weapons on both sides, are we in a new cold war?
It is easy to confuse the current geopolitical situation with that of the 1980s. The United States and Russia each accuse the other of interfering in domestic affairs. Russia has annexed territory over U.S. objections, raising concerns about military conflict.
As during the Cold War after World War II, nations are developing and building weapons based on advanced technology. During the Cold War, the weapon of choice was nuclear missiles; today it's software, whether its used for attacking computer systems or targets in the real world.
Russian rhetoric about the importance of artificial intelligence is picking up – and with good reason: As artificial intelligence software develops, it will be able to make decisions based on more data, and more quickly, than humans can handle. As someone who researches the use of AI for applications as diverse as drones, self-driving vehicles and cybersecurity, I worry that the world may be entering – or perhaps already in – another cold war, fueled by AI. And I'm not alone.
Just like the the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s, each side has reason to fear its opponent gaining a technological upper hand. In a recent meeting at the Strategic Missile Academy near Moscow, Russian President Vladmir Putin suggested that AI may be the way Russia can rebalance the power shift created by the U.S. outspending Russia nearly 10-to-1 on defense each year. Russia's state-sponsored RT media reported AI was "key to Russia beating [the] U.S. in defense."
It sounds remarkably like the rhetoric of the Cold War, where the United States and the Soviets each built up enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone on Earth many times over. This arms race led to the concept of mutual assured destruction: Neither side could risk engaging in open war without risking its own ruin. Instead, both sides stockpiled weapons and dueled indirectly via smaller armed conflicts and political disputes.
Now, more than 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have decommissioned tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. However, tensions are growing. Any modern-day cold war would include cyberattacks and nuclear powers' involvement in allies' conflicts. It's already happening.
Both countries – and many others too – still have nuclear weapons, but their use by a major power is still unthinkable to most. However, recentreports show increased public concern that countries might use them.
Russia and Russian-supporting hackers have spied electronically, launched cyberattacks against power plants, banks, hospitals and transportation systems – and against U.S. elections. Russian cyberattackers have targeted the Ukraine and U.S. allies Britain and Germany.
Putin has said he views artificial intelligence as "the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind." In September 2017, he told students that the nation that "becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world." Putin isn't saying he'll hand over the nuclear launch codes to a computer, though science fiction has portrayed computers launching missiles. He is talking about many other uses for AI.
AI can also be used to control non-nuclear weapons including unmanned vehicles like drones and cyberweapons. Unmanned vehicles must be able to operate while their communications are impaired – which requires onboard AI control. AI control also prevents a group that's being targetedfrom stopping or preventing a drone attack by destroying its control facility, because control is distributed, both physically and electronically.
Cyberweapons may, similarly, need to operate beyond the range of communications. And reacting to them may require such rapid responsethat the responses would be best launched and controlled by AI systems.
AI-coordinated attacks can launch cyber or real-world weapons almost instantly, making the decision to attack before a human even notices a reason to. AI systems can change targets and techniques faster than humans can comprehend, much less analyze. For instance, an AI system might launch a drone to attack a factory, observe drones responding to defend, and launch a cyberattack on those drones, with no noticeable pause.