By Wendy Stocker
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 4 Winter 2022
In late October, the Canadian Pugwash Group and the Balsillie School of International Affairs co-sponsored the Restoring a Strained Global Security Architecture Policy Conference to consider “current pressing challenges to international security as well as a role for Canada and Canadian foreign policy.” Presenters included Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo and Senior Researchers Branka Marijan and Jessica West.
Cesar made a compelling case for a nuanced, multilateral approach to global security, because a “multipolar world is emerging.”
The war in Ukraine has raised the real possibility of a nuclear conflict. But, as Cesar has said repeatedly, the world has lived with the real possibility of nuclear war for as long as competing stockpiles of weapons have existed. All countries that possess nuclear weapons are prepared to use them under certain conditions. This is the nuclear deterrence doctrine. If there is a silver lining to the Ukraine conflict, it is that it shows this doctrine for what it is, a real threat. If it were a bluff, nuclear weapons “could be made of papier-mâché or cardboard.”
Cesar highlighted two casualties of war: truth and nuance. Both are needed to “construct practical solutions” that will contribute to “cool-headed analysis,” which will in turn allow NATO and other Western countries to acknowledge legitimate Russian security interests, even while condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Jessica argued convincingly for outer-space arms control, particularly given the limited utility of kinetic space weapons. It is hard for space weapons to hit assigned space targets or limit their effects, with everything in rapid motion. The debris effects of kinetic space weapons are dangerous to everyone, including actors who own them, because “we are all in the same bathtub.”
Arms control in space is not easy to achieve. Some problems are logistical; space is so far away and how can we know when tech is operating outside the rules or if restrictions are being enforced? Some are definitional; what constitutes a weapon, especially when so much space tech is multipurpose?
Jessica believes that the biggest obstacle to arms control is the lack of political will. To make progress, she advised better communications and diplomatic mechanisms. She also welcomed the moratorium on certain anti-satellite tests adopted by the United States, which Canada has joined.
Jessica emphasized the need to involve industry in regulating space because it plays a huge role in space activities.
But the critical thing is to prevent the normalization of bad behaviour.
As she does so well, Branka explained the unique issues posed by artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber weapons. The bottom line is that AI is not a weapon; it is “an enabler, enhancer, and amplifier of existing and upcoming platforms, systems, and threats.” As such, regulating the use of AI is particularly difficult.
It is also important to remember that AI is tech that is still being developed. It has limitations, which provoke unpredictable outcomes when used in weapons. And it is largely developed by civilians, who do not design for the battlefield.
Despite these and other weaknesses, many militaries and non-state actors want autonomous weapons systems that employ AI. They might want to limit harm to ground forces, or it might be felt that humans don’t respond quickly enough in a particular situation.
It is certainly the case that weapons that use AI are already being used in combat and that data is being collected that will improve these weapons over time. For example, both sides in the Ukraine conflict are using loitering munitions and wanting more. Ukraine uses AI to analyze satellite imagery. The audience was also told that the United States military, in a different context, has used AI in its kill-chain sequence.
Because projects to develop AI-enhanced military systems are generally secret, it is not easy to predict how AI will be used or weaponized. Many weapons use commercial components, which are cheap and easily replaced if damaged in combat. In this way, military and civilian development of AI are intricately linked.
As with space weapons, there is little political will to restrict the development of autonomous weapons. Still, 70 states have come together to declare that human control of weapons must be maintained.
A code of conduct is needed. Of course, Branka did not and would not say that all AI military apps are bad. But she was concerned because humans seem convinced that all challenges can be met with more and more tech. But not all problems have technological solutions. Sometimes all we need is good old-fashioned human communication, face to face.
Photo: Cesar Jaramillo, Ploughshares founder Ernie Regehr, Jessica West, Kelsey Gallagher, Kenneth Epps, and Branka Marijan at the Restoring a Strained Global Security Architecture Policy Conference in November.