Asymmetric Dialogue

Russia prepares for a future of making autonomous weapons

There is no monopoly on autonomy. Figuring out how machines are going to interpret the world, and then act on that interpretation, is a military science as much as an academic and commercial one, and it should come as no surprise that arms manufacturers in Russia are starting to develop their own AI programs. Kalashnikov, an arms maker that’s part of the larger Rostec defense enterprise, announced last week that it is has developed some expertise in machine learning.
The announcement came during the “Digital Industry of Industrial Russia 2018” conference, reported TASS. Machine learning is a broad field around a relatively simple concept: training a program to sort inputs (say, parts of a picture that are street signs, parts of a picture that are not street signs), and then replicate that same learning on brand new inputs, based only on what it knows of prior examples. In a military context, that can mean everything from identifying specific types of vehicles to simple seeing what is and isn’t road. It’s hard to speak to any given development in the technology without seeing it in practice.
To that end, Bendett says we might see demonstrations of machine learning in smart weapons modules advertised by Kalashnikov, though without an explicit announcement. Kalashnikov’s line range from small arms (including, yes, the AK series of rifles) up through precision weapons and unmanned vehicles.
Another possibility for machine learning would be in the electronic warfare space. Given that most of EW is already about machines receiving and interpreting signals invisible to human perception, this is fertile ground for autonomous process.
Autonomy in electronic warfare doesn’t raise the immediate visceral concern is people as it does with more kinetic, explosion-causing or bullet-firing weapons, but overall the principles of autonomous weapons are the same, and given how integral electronic systems are to almost everything in modern combat, it’d be a mistake to write off an autonomous electronic warfare machine as inherently less-than-lethal. Understanding the full picture of autonomous weapons means thinking beyond bullets, and it means thinking about international law, too. Last month, the European Union quietly removed a clause from a defense funding bill that would prevent that money going towards autonomous weapons, instead deferring to international law. International law remains unclear and unsettled on lethal autonomy, and in its absence militaries across the globe are going ahead and planning for some greater degree of autonomous technologies in the future.