The Force Awakens: AI and Modern Conflict — #MSC2018 warm up

The 54th Munich Security Conference had an unofficial pre-opening yesterday, with only a handful of the formal attendees and a public panel discussion about the upcoming role of AI in modern warfare. The panelists represented political and military entities and one NGO. This composition distinguished yesterday’s event from a technical conference in a way that was at the same time delightful and disturbing.

The most notable contributions came from the two and a half women on the stage. Kersti Kaljulaid, president of Estonia, offered some advice on how the executive might be able to contain the development of rogue AI. Her proposals filled the whole spectrum from helpless actionism (monitoring energy use, apparently hoping that the developers of bad AI don’t use cloud resources) to pragmatic and feasible, but generic approaches (build a blockchain based marketplace for whistleblowers to generate leads to malicious operations by their own flakey members).

Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch coordinates the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots”. She used the discussion to draw the attention to the question, what can be done by international agreements to prevent development and use of fully autonomous lethal weapons in warfare. Given the scope of the conference (and the fact that many of the folks involved in this discussion have to rely on second hand information when it comes to technical capabilities), this seems to be the only question really leading anywhere.


And then there was Sophia. She never held a public office or exerted much influence on international matters. But she is the first robotic citizen of Saudi Arabia, and she delivered the opening speech  of the day. Without an active role in the panel, she spent the rest of the event at the speaker’s desk, and it was quite entertaining to watch her (probably unintendedly) shaking her head when certain topics came up.

The other panelists were Darryl A. Williams, Lieutenant-General, Commander of the Land Forces of NATO, and

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO Secretary General. The moderator was NYT columnist David E. Sanger.