Rules urgently needed for cyber, AI and other emerging domains amid growing threat of cyber attacks: Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at the third Singapore Defence Technology Summit on Oct 12, 2021. PHOTO: DSTA

SINGAPORE - The need for frameworks to guide state and commercial behaviour in cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), big data and other emerging domains has become more urgent, with the scale, scope and frequency of cyber attacks expected to rise, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Tuesday (Oct 12).

Non-state actors are increasingly conducting cyber attacks through tactics such as disinformation, ransomware and influence campaigns against governments and companies, he said at the third Singapore Defence Technology Summit.

Meanwhile, the contest for dominance in space means that it could become a militarised zone with the potential for strategic miscalculation, he said. With the rise of autonomous technologies and AI, safeguards are needed for robustness and accountability.

"Consensus (on frameworks) will not be easy to achieve, but the conversations among corporations and countries must start," he said, adding that attacks in the digital battlefield could easily spill over to the rest of society.

"Just as in the kinetic world, the digital domain must move from an unfettered, no-rules based, 'who dares wins' architecture to one that prevents, at the very least, high-stakes catastrophes and disruption to civilian life."

Dr Ng was giving the opening address at the summit organised by the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) at Shangri-La Singapore.

Conducted in a hybrid format, the four-day summit first held in 2018 is expected to be attended by 800 participants from 23 countries, including 100 in person.

It gathers technology leaders around the world to network, confer and collaborate in the development of defence and security capabilities through panel discussions and tech showcases.

In his speech, Dr Ng said technological changes play a central role in conflicts, and noted the scale of devastation that could be wrought with technological advances, such as in World War I.

He said that the search for "stabilisers" in the age of technological disruptions must involve partnerships with other countries so as to guide behaviour and outcomes in emerging domains.

Ongoing efforts at the United Nations to develop frameworks - whether on the application of international law, or fostering of norms and principles - to strengthen international order must continue to be supported, he said.

One challenge to tackle is the irresponsible use of AI in military applications.

Singapore has established preliminary AI guiding principles for its defence establishment, and will continue to participate actively in multilateral cooperation on AI technologies, governance, and policy, Dr Ng added.

Among the highlights at the summit - themed Building Confidence Amidst Technology Disruption - is a keynote address by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Ms Heidi Shyu, United States Undersecretary of Defence for Research and Engineering, will share, live from Washington via hologram technology, the Department of Defence's strategy for innovation and how it is addressing future challenges.

All in-person participants must be fully vaccinated and have to undergo daily pre-event testing using antigen rapid tests. About 40 people who flew in from abroad to attend are on controlled itineraries.

Mr Roy Chan, chairman of the summit's organising committee, said the world has witnessed unprecedented disruptions since the last summit in 2019, which has accelerated the development and adoption of technology.

"As we rely more heavily on technology today, we also see the rise of cyber attacks and other asymmetric threats," he said, giving the example of how fake news has intensified in frequency and sophistication.

"Therefore… we felt it was more important than before to come together and examine how organisations can position ourselves to harness tech opportunities, and at the same time deal with asymmetric threats."

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