Could we be entering an AI-powered arms race in cyberwarfare?

Soon to be obsolete?


Much has been made about the possibility of AI-powered autonomous weapons becoming a factor in conventional warfare in the coming years.  But in the sphere of cyber-warfare, AI is already starting to play a major role, as laid out in an article in this week’s Christian Science Monitor.

Many nations–most notably Russia and China–already employ armies of hackers to conduct operations in the cybersphere against other countries.  The US Department of Defense’s response might be a harbinger of things to come:

[T]he allure of machines quickly fixing vulnerabilities has led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Department’s technology lab, to organize the first-ever hacking competition that pits automated supercomputers against each other at next month’s Black Hat cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas.

With the contest, DARPA is aiming to find new ways to quickly identify and eliminate software flaws that can be exploited by hackers, says DARPA program manager Mike Walker.

“We want to build autonomous systems that can arrive at their own insights, do their own analysis, make their own risk equity decisions of when to patch and how to manage that process,” said Walker.

One of the big concerns about deploying autonomous weapon systems (AWSs) in the physical world is that it will lead to an arms race.  Starting in the Cold War, the development of more advanced missile defense systems spurred the development of more advanced missiles, which in turn led to the development of even more advanced missile defense systems, and so on.  It is easy to see how the same dynamic would play out with AWSs: because AWSs would be able to react on far shorter timescales than human soldiers, the technology may quickly reach a point where the only effective way to counter an enemy’s offensive AWS would be to deploy a defensive AWS, kickstarting a cycle of ever-more-advanced AWS development.

The fear with AWSs is that it might make human military decisionmaking obsolete, with human commanders unable to intervene quickly enough to meaningfully affect combat operations between AWSs.

The cyberwarfare arena might be a testing ground for that “AI arms race” theory.  If state-backed hackers respond to AI-powered cybersecurity systems by developing new AI-powered hacking technologies, what happens next might prove an ominous preview of what could happen someday in the world of physical warfare.

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