As COVID-19 compels the international community to expand the toolbox at its disposal to more effectively tackle the crisis, artificial intelligence (AI) companies and the broader tech sector are rallying to assist governments and public health authorities. Established companies and start-ups are developing means of early detection, performing digital contact tracing, 3D printing face shields, and even working on better detection of infections in chest x-rays. These incredible responses show that “tech for good,” that is, the creation and use of technology for the betterment of humanity, is more — or at least can be more — than an empty slogan.
At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis is at once expanding and redefining traditional notions of national security and what constitutes effective preparedness. This pandemic has in fact brought into sharper focus the choices that are made about where resources are allocated, which technologies are developed, and for what purposes. These types of choices are and will be particularly important when it comes to applications of AI for national and global security.
Some security and defence applications of AI, which automate different tasks and improve efficiency, are not particularly problematic. However, countries such as the United States, Russia, China, and South Korea are also investing heavily in ever more autonomous weapons systems. For the 2021 fiscal year, the U.S. Pentagon has requested some $1.7 billion for research and development of AI-enabled autonomous technology.
As the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots warns, the concern is that new weapons systems will operate without meaningful human control. Such critical functions as the selection of targets and the employment of lethal force could be carried out by machines with little direction from human operators. In the near future, human involvement could be completely removed — an unprecedented development into unchartered ethical and legal territory.