The State of Military AI

The State of Military AI

Military spending on AI technologies has increased markedly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What has that done to its global demand?

At the back of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the need to strengthen the relationship between technology and the state to strengthen against the threat of foreign occupation has led to a boom in military spending from defence budgets around the world. In fact, announced on June 30, NATO is now creating a $1 billion innovation fund investing in early-stage startups and VC funds developing ‘priority’ technologies: big data processing, automation and artificial intelligence.

Although there’s a major range in the numbers, estimates for the military AI market were thought to be anything between $6-$10 billion in 2020 and expected to grow at a roughly 14% CAGR to reach almost anything a very rough $20 billion by 2025. This number could be much higher given the growing trend towards investment in military AI from governments around the world.

In fact, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) in the United States has recommended that the US military spend an additional up to $8 billion annually on newer technologies amidst fears of falling behind China. The US Department of Defence currently spends about $874 million (for 2022) on AI investments, a way behind the $1.6 billion spent by China, according to a report from the Georgetown Centre for Security and Emerging Technologies.

From the Mundane to the Lethal

Why companies sell military AI is because of the rather lofty claims around what the technology can do – helping everything “from the mundane to the lethal, from screening résumés to processing data from satellites or recognizing patterns in data to help soldiers make quicker decisions on the battlefield. Image recognition software can help with identifying targets. Autonomous drones can be used for surveillance or attacks on land, air, or water, or to help soldiers deliver supplies more safely than is possible by land.”

The technology, however, still in its infancy, faces a number of instances of not working completely out as advertised – especially in technically challenging ideas where deploying AI with very little training data becomes rather challenging, such as in battle zones. This could, in fact, cause autonomous systems to fail, in a rather ‘complex and unpredictable manner’.

Nevertheless, militaries around the world have decided to press forward with military-grade AI adoption. The US, for example, is investing heavily in both startups working on autonomous military vehicles as well as incumbents in the field such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and IBM. Further east, the British released a press release last year providing information on the use of AI in a military operation to gather data about surrounding terrain and environments for the first time; while both are investing heavily on autonomous drones that could prove to be a lethal tool in combat.

In fact, since the start of the war, “the UK has launched a new AI strategy specifically for defence, and the Germans have earmarked just under half a billion for research and artificial intelligence within a $100 billion cash injection to the military,” according to the MIT Technology Review. The French too have identified AI as key defence technology, and the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, has marked $1 billion to develop new defence technologies.

Adoption still a challenge

Outside of the obvious challenges surrounding the development of military-grade AI technologies, the major obstacle currently is adoption. Whilst a lot of countries push the AI narrative, most struggle to move from concept to implementation, note experts. This is mainly owing to the fact that military contracts in most countries are dominated by large incumbents with greater expertise in hardware than software – making the entry of disruptors that much more of a challenge.

The MIT Technology Review reports: “Militaries are in a bind: go too fast, and risk deploying dangerous and broken systems, or go too slow and miss out on technological advancement.”

Startups and VC firms usually get impatient, risking capital flight from the sector owing to chunky military vetting processes that move much slower compared to other sectors seeing AI developments at breakneck speeds: ‘military contracts can span decades, but in the fast-paced startup cycle, companies have just a year or so to get off the ground.’

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