Technology can help transform militaries, but first it must overcome resistance, panel hears

The Ministry of Defence's deputy secretary of technology, David Koh, stated that emerging technologies like AI and data analytics can be used to fight terrorism and transform the military.
The Ministry of Defence's deputy secretary of technology, David Koh, stated that emerging technologies like AI and data analytics can be used to fight terrorism and transform the military.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - A possible Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) supporter was barred from entering Singapore after an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system used by the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre flagged him as suspicious and alerted the authorities.

The suspected ISIS supporter had been on board an oil tanker off Singapore in 2015 when the AI-embedded system that flagged him detected "anomalies" after scanning information from open sources, commercial data, intelligence sources and social media.

When security agencies checked, it was confirmed that the individual was a suspected sympathiser of the terror group.

Recounting this incident at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday (June 3), the Ministry of Defence's deputy secretary of technology David Koh highlighted this as an example of how emerging technologies like AI and data analytics can be used to fight terrorism and transform the military.

Mr Koh, who is also chief executive of the Cyber Security Agency and defence cyber chief, was speaking at a panel discussion on emerging technologies and its implications on defence at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.

"Militaries all around the world must be able to innovate and experiment with these emerging technologies in order to find the best way to integrate them. We need to nurture a culture where it is safe to experiment, safe to fail," said Mr Koh.

He added that Singapore has been adjusting procurement processes to experiment with new technologies.

The session was moderated by Dr Bastian Giegerich, director of defence and military analysis of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Also on the panel were the United Kingdom's chief of defence staff Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach; Mr Mac Thornberry, chair of the US' House of Representatives' Committee on Armed Services; and Colonel Zhu Qichao, a professor of the People's Liberation Army's National University of Defence Technology.

Both Sir Stuart and Mr Thornberry also raised the need for militaries to change the way they procure and use new technologies to keep up with the rapid rate of technological advancement.

Mr Koh also pointed out that one area that Singapore finds challenging is fighting the resistance to new technologies and change.

He recounted how when Mindef wanted to introduce drones into the airforce, there was significant resistance from the "fighter pilots who were running the airforce".

The ministry's Permanent Secretary then had no choice but to build its drone capabilities in the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Joint Staff, he said.

"It was only when a more enlightened chief of air force took over that he took back the entire set up that had been built in the Joint Staff," he added.

Similarly, while Singapore is now trying to build up its Defence Cyber Organisation - Mindef's cyber command that develops cyber defence policies and strategies - it is facing resistance when it comes to getting skilled full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), said Mr Koh.

"We raised the question - if (an NSF) is the next Steve Jobs, should he spend his two years of conscript life as a rifleman or should we better employ him in cyber?

"The answer said: If he is combat fit he should be a rifleman in the foxhole, and that's the way it should be," he said, adding that these were "non-trivial" challenges to overcome.