Artificial intelligence will not make soldiers obsolete, say panellists at tech summit

(From left) Discussion moderator Dr Brian Pierce, office director of Information Innovation Office, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, US Department of Defense; Endor co-founder and CEO Dr Yaniv Altshuler; Swedish Defence Research Agency research director Dr Joel Brynielsson; SparkCognition founder and CEO Amir Husain at the Singapore Defence Technology Summit 2019. PHOTO: DSTA

SINGAPORE - The use of artificial intelligence (AI) will not make soldiers obsolete, but it might redefine their roles in the future, said expert panellists at a technology summit on Thursday (June 27).

In fact, soldiers could become more proficient if they are technically skilled and are able to make use of AI systems to their advantage, they added.

Speaking at the second Singapore Defence Technology Summit, Israeli computer scientist Yaniv Altshuler said it is "not so unlikely" to foresee a future where soldiers operate a swarm of armoured, autonomous, or semi-autonomous vehicles remotely.

"Now, you see soldiers or pilots actually graduating from flying academies and they are flying drones. Do you call them pilots, or are pilots now redundant?... The definition is changing. I think the same would be with soldiers," he said.

Fellow panellist Amir Husain, founder and chief executive of US-based artificial intelligence company SparkCognition, said: "Obsolete is a very strong word. I don't think that's an appropriate word really in this context."

"I think AI will take on a huge amount of the burden. I think the armed forces of the future will be smaller, or at least can be smaller, given the current threat environment, unless something drastic changes," added the American, author of The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age Of Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial intelligence refers to technologies that can perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as speech recognition, language translation, and chess playing.

This is done through software algorithms which let machines "learn" for themselves from vast amounts of data.

The three-day event, organised by the Defence Science and Technology Agency of Singapore at the Shangri-La Hotel, involves about 400 participants from 23 countries such as the United States, France, China, Estonia and Brunei.

The 90-minute session on Thursday was moderated by Dr Brian Pierce, who is from the Information Innovation Office at the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency at the US Department of Defence.

Other questions posed to the panellists include whether humans can trust AI too much, and how AI can enable small fighting units in the field to operate smarter.

Responding to another question from the audience about whether AI is making people dumber, Dr Altshuler said a mechanic today can simply plug his computer into a car to detect faults instead of having to check manually.

"Does this mean that he is dumber? I don't think so. Does he feel he is less proficient? I think the opposite. Will he have a better chance of fixing my car? Probably. So I think this is a very good analogy of what's going to happen to soldiers," he said.

Dr Joel Brynielsson, research director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency and associate professor at the Royal Institute of Technology, said technical advances need not make humans dumber.

"If you look at fighter plane pilots, they have a button today that says 'land the plane'. Of course if they push that button all the time and never land it themselves, then they will lose that skill."

"So as with all technical development, it's a related question which we need to think about, and we need to understand what's under the hood."

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