AI may need ‘Sputnik moment’ to wake up public to risks

British MP Tobias Ellwood says warfare will be altered by machine learning

Artificial intelligence may need a “Sputnik moment” that wakes up the public to a race to shape technology, the chairman of Britain’s parliamentary defence committee says.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood said AI’s applications in the military were about to “about to alter the battlefield existentially”.

An analyst said that the UK’s adversaries would turn to automated war-fighting even if Britain is reluctant to take humans out of the loop.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is trying to position itself as a technology leader by hosting the first global summit on AI safety this autumn.

But Mr Ellwood said understanding of AI in Britain’s parliament “certainly isn’t up to scratch” to be able to regulate it.

He called for the UK to appoint a minister dedicated to AI, an area currently under the remit of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

“There needs to be a massive wake-up call. There may require a Sputnik moment,” Mr Ellwood told a panel hosted by the Henry Jackson Society, a security think tank.

“It may require us to see an event, an individual event which then wakes the public up to make greater demands on the international community to start protecting how we operate.”

The launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, by the Soviet Union in 1957 caught the US by surprise and spurred it to enter the space race to in an effort to assert Cold War supremacy.

The growing interest in AI comes at a time of increasing competition between the US, Russia and China and a drive in the West to improve military strength.

The use of machine learning could speed up decision-making on the battlefield. EPA

“Machine learning and autonomy is about to alter the battlefield existentially. Whoever gets there first, whoever is able to harness this, has that critical advantage,” Mr Ellwood said.

If no guidelines are put in place then “we’ll learn the hard way that AI is both a force multiplier, a force for good, but also something to be very, very wary of”, he said.

Tim Watson, director of defence and security at Britain’s government-funded Alan Turing Institute, said AI would “change the tempo of warfare” as computers make decisions in milliseconds.

“We feel very strongly that we want to have humans making decisions,” he said. “But there will come a time where our adversaries feel that they will gain advantage over us by being able to control events on the battlefield at computer speed rather than at human speed.”

Mr Ellwood said AI could also remove human error, poor decision-making or “misguided heroism” from modern warfare.

“It is going to be game-changing. I’m not sure we’ve really got our heads around it,” he said.

“We only have a fair bit of road to get the international global regulations in place. Our world is not at war but we’re certainly not at peace and we’re placing ever greater demands on our security services.”

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