In the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, the Yaka arrow, when shot by the Yondu Udonta, goes through a bunch of people in a flash; the weapon is highly responsive to certain high-octave whistle commands, which cause it to change trajectory as needed, return to the holster promptly or even combust into a fiery explosion on command.

Real life Artificial Intelligence drone technology is making possible the deployment of autonomous weapons that could do pretty much the same and more.

It will take some time to see whether robots of the future steal all our jobs, but drones are already stealing the march on the future of war. Based on common understanding, it has almost become natural to visualise a robot as having a human-like form, fighting off enemies. But essentially, drones are robotic machines that are capable of executing specific tasks with little or no human intervention, with speed and precision.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is said to be the first war that was won, at least in part, by the (Lethal) Loitering Autonomous Weapons (LAW). As this recent war has shown, LAWs can quickly turn the balance in a hot conflict. Once launched, they can fly for hours or loiter in the sky till they acquire a target, and then they drop right on to it to destroy it, earning the nickname ‘kamikaze drones’.

Their usefulness comes from the autonomy with which they can operate per a pre-assigned objective, making it very difficult for the opponent to fight and take counter measures. Imagine a posse of “fire and forget” loitering drones, taking out air defence systems to clear the way for the follow-up attack.

Autonomous AI drone technology is bringing us closer and closer to a future that we so far saw depicted only in films

Advanced Autonomous Weapon Systems (AWS) are expected to benefit hugely from investments and developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is poised to change the future of war. According to the International Data Center, the global spending on AI will reach 110 billion dollars in the year 2024.

In 2017, China accounted for 70 percent of the 39.5 billion dollars invested in AI worldwide. Global military spending on AWS and AI is projected to reach 16 billion and 18 billon dollars respectively by 2025. These investments point to a rapid proliferation of these weapons with a concurrent increased military usefulness.

Swarms of drones as autonomous aerial weapons will change the future of warfare

Compared to resource intensive research and production costs of conventional weapons, the AWS tech proliferation would benefit from Moore’s Law and the declining costs of production, including 3D printing, enabling acquisition or modification of robotic drones. It is not difficult to imagine modification of a quadcopter drone, costing less than 100 dollars — used for, say, filming — to be adapted for a predatory mission. Think about a drone that can come back to refuel or recharge!

It’s not hard to see that AI offers an investment price point that creates the possibility of capturing and holding an area without human deployment. This will have implications, which can be both advantageous and subversive. Security management or target acquisition with a remote precision tears down the cost structure around such operations for anyone, while defence against such weapons would have a higher cost.

Unlike nuclear technology, which had very limited commercial use beyond power generation, AI is multi-use and all-pervasive: its use can be from AWS to smartphone applications. Just to cite an example, Uber Elevate is an “urban aviation ride-sharing product” that will whisk people across cities. Dubai is testing the Autonomous Air Taxi which may be the world’s first “self-flying taxi service”. Quite a few cases that leverage data analytics can be cited. AI is thus the centrepiece of the future economy and is expected to denominate its resilience.

A batch of drones can also work autonomously as a group based on Swarm Intelligence (SI) technology. In the Hollywood movie Olympus Has Fallen (2019), a swarm of AI-powered armed drones quicky overwhelm the protection detail of the president. But it was Star Trek Beyond (2016) that featured the devastating power of Krall’s Swarm Drones, which destroy the USS Enterprise with a feisty abandon, while Captain James T. Kirk and crew helplessly fight for their lives. That technology is no longer the domain of creative movie CGI scenes.

These are highly effective smart weapons, compared to the huge clunky missiles of the Cold War era. In order to fight these weapons, one would certainly need these very weapons; the speed and precision of these machines would be beyond human response. Even Israel’s Iron Dome, which uses AI-based parameters to achieve the interception of missiles and rockets, could be overwhelmed by more accurate drones and by increasing the number of projectiles or swarms.

Thus, expectedly, drones will have to be deployed to fight drones — which does sound a bit like video games. The key decisions on the use of force may still be human for some time to come. However, a mental extrapolation of current capability would lead to the conclusion that it would be made easier, progressively, for machine and devices to connect and talk to each other, and act together, based on set parameters or algorithms.

Such communication will have very practical reasons from an aviation standpoint as well. But now take a moment to think of the internet and 5G capabilities, and instantly one is reminded of Skynet and I, Robot type scenarios.

The progression, therefore, will be to “autonomous systems” that comprise of various offensive or response mechanisms. The UN Convention on Certain Weapons (CCW) has worked out guiding principles as a code of conduct on AWS development according to international law. The CCW had better luck in coming up with effective policy tools to deal with problematic weapons such as landmines and cluster munitions.

It is hoped that CCW will be able to take the work further and the discussions would lead to an international treaty to regulate the development and use of these “certain” fire-and-forget machines. Expect no bans, however.

The hum of a camera-mounted drone is something we are all used to, having been to weddings or other events, but the sound of a swarm usually has maleficent foreboding — ask any farmer. Beyond military use, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Miniature Pilotless Aircraft or Flying Mini Robots have a variety of applications, ranging from transport and delivery, to photography, with great value addition to human capacity. Just think of robots delivering food to quarantined patients.

However, autonomous systems monitoring autonomous systems with a response capacity is not a comfortable scenario to imagine.

The writer’s interests include data analytics, process innovation and Artificial Intelligence.
He tweets @nasruminallah1

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 29th, 2021