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Humanitarian challenges of artificial intelligence and cyber as weapons

Humanitarian challenges of artificial intelligence and cyber as weapons
Our new cyber-humanity is set to dictate our next era as a species as we increasingly live in human-machine interactions in all parts of our lives. -Filepix
THIS year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions and it is certain that new technology weapons, artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber will shape human warfare in the next 70 years.

I will give a humanitarian perspective on this latest revolution in military affairs by reflecting generally on our relationship with technology as human beings, and defining the humanitarian challenges in AI, cyber and their ambiguity as weapons.
What is the relationship between humans and technology? As a species of animal we humans are exceptional in our relationship with technology.

Our imagination, reasoning and creativity sets us apart. We are always inventing things and making things.
Artificial intelligence is the use of computers to carry out tasks previously requiring human intelligence, cognition or reasoning, and often going beyond what is humanly possible. -ICRC

Much of our history is the story of how we harness powers beyond us – animal, vegetable and physical – to our own human purposes.

Through most of our existence as homo sapiens we have merged ourselves with these non-human powers to operate mostly in hybrid form.

We rode horses to go faster. We made spears and rifles to kill at a distance. We vaccinated ourselves to fight off microscopic predators.

Today we are deeply attached to computers which enable us to reach across time and space, and make complex calculations and connections at incredible speed.

Our new cyber-humanity is set to dictate our next era as a species as we increasingly live in human-machine interactions in all parts of our lives.

These human-machine interactions will become increasingly integrated as we move from hand-held devices to more sophisticated “interfaces” that respond instantly to our five senses, and are increasingly implanted and embedded in our bodies.

Our relationship with our technology has always been ambivalent – enabling good and bad outcomes. Our very first experiments with fire – a symbol of our creativity – made clear that we can use flames to warm or burn one another.

Human technology is obviously not a simple thing. It is neither purely good nor purely bad. Its moral value depends on how we use it.

We can expect this ambivalence to continue as we use AI and cyber increasingly in war. These new capabilities will have the power to make war better and worse.

What is this new technology that we call artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber? Artificial intelligence is the use of computers to carry out tasks previously requiring human intelligence, cognition or reasoning, and often going beyond what is humanly possible.

This often leads to machine learning in which AI systems use large amounts of data to develop their functioning and “learn” from experience.

These AI systems are typically based on algorithms, a model of mathematical formulae originally developed by the ninth century Muslim scholar from Persia, Al Khawarizmi, and named after him.

So we have the Islamic enlightenment to thank for this great digital leap forward!

Cyber is a word drawn from twentieth century science fiction to refer generally to the computerized or virtual space generated and maintained by computers.

It is also important to define what we mean by a weapon at this point because much of the ethical and legal dispute around AI and cyber turns on whether these systems are weapons per se or some form of non-human combatant complete with their own autonomy and decision-making.

The sword is perhaps the archetypal weapon. It is an inanimate object made by human hands and only ever operable in human hands.

A sword is hammered into shape, sharpened into a blade and then held and wielded as a deadly weapon by a warrior.

A sword has no mind of its own and cannot make decisions. When the warrior is resting, the sword lies inanimate beside him on the grass. A sword only becomes a weapon when taken up in human hands.

Indeed the original definition of a weapon is an object that only comes to life when operated by a human.

Other things like landmines and carefully covered holes are really traps set by humans that tend to function indiscriminately.

So, traditionally, a weapon has no life of its own and operates only under human control. If a sword suddenly leapt into life and began fighting on its own, it would no longer be a weapon but a non-human combatant.

Here is the first humanitarian challenge from AI and deep learning machines – the challenge of autonomy.

If an AI weapon system is launched onto a battlefield to loiter, patrol or seek out the enemy and is learning as it goes (even if it has been programmed within certain parameters by a human) then when does it stop being a weapon and become a non-human combatant with autonomy in its “critical functions” and making its own targeting and activation decisions?

The second challenge is one of humanitarian judgement. How can we be sure that a process of machine learning will stay true to humanitarian principles of restraint, distinction, precaution and proportionality, even if they have initially been programmed in as defaults?

Can we rely on an AI system to become more humane or less humane as its system “learns” from the environment around it? Is machine learning predictable along a given pathway, or not?

The third humanitarian problem is one of speed - the stunning difference between human speed and machine speed. Even if a human were still “controlling” an AI learning system on the battlefield, could they keep pace with the learning and decision-making speed of the machine?

In a world in which a simple text sent from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta arrives almost immediately you send it, what chance is there that we humans will think as fast as our machines over a complex battlefield to control them once they are in mid-flow?

Problems of autonomy, judgement and speed are significant in what we can expect to be complex AI targeting systems using big data or agile robotic weapons operating at the physical frontline like drones of many kinds.

These three challenges also affect more general cyber warfare which seeks out enemy computer systems and inserts malware to pause, repurpose or destroy their core functions.

But cyber warfare also presents three additional humanitarian challenges.

The fundamental computer dependence of so many essential services today - like health, water, energy, finance, education and communications - makes the civilian population deeply vulnerable to precisely targeted cyber attacks.

Cyber capability, therefore, gives rise to a very broad attack surface in war today and this large surface is extremely vulnerable to a single pin-point attack which could “switch off” a whole society in seconds.

This capability creates the grave humanitarian risk of maximum effect from minimal strike.   

If cyber systems offer a broader attack surface they also potentially offer a deeper and more personalized attack surface by gathering highly individual data or profiling from big data to mount major surveillance and response operations at the individual level.

Millions of individual people could be monitored simultaneously by large computer systems during armed conflict in which AI could be used for machine-based decision-making about, for example, who should be detained, conscripted into the armed forces or deported.

These humanitarian risks are increased by another feature of cyber attacks – anonymity and problems of attribution.

It is often difficult to know who has made the attack and, even if you do know, it can be unwise to show knowledge of the attacker for fear of revealing your own virtual position in a conflict.

The current ease of anonymity and disguise in cyber warfare defuses responsibility and avoids formal systems of accountability, deterrence and shaming which usually support humanitarian norms.

In the next article, I will suggest that law and “human control” are the best guides to responsible use of AI and cyber, and to express some optimism around AI and cyber to qualify the gloom in current predictions.


Dr Hugo Slim, Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a humanitarian organization that has been helping people around the world affected by armed conflict and other violence for over 150 years.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.