By Matt Field, December 20, 2019
Researchers in the United States and elsewhere are paying a lot of attention to the prospect that in the coming years new nuclear weapons—and the infrastructure built to operate them—will include greater levels of artificial intelligence and automation. Earlier this month, three prominent US defense experts published a comprehensive analysis of how automation is already involved in nuclear command and control systems and of what could go wrong if countries implement even riskier forms of it.
The working paper “A Stable Nuclear Future? The Impact of Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence” by the team of Michael Horowitz, Paul Scharre, and Alexander Velez-Green comes on the heels of other scholarly takes on the impact artificial intelligence (AI) will have on strategies around using nuclear weapons. All this research reflects the fact that militaries around the world are incorporating more artificial intelligence into non-nuclear weaponry—and that several countries are overhauling their nuclear weapons programs.
Horowitz believes that incorporating artificial intelligence in nuclear weapons systems themselves poses mostly low probability risks. In fact, what concerns him most is how AI in non-nuclear military systems could affect nuclear weapons’ policies. “The risk I worry most about is how conventional military applications of AI, by increasing the speed of war, could place pressure on the early warning and launch doctrines of nuclear weapons states that fear decapitation in conventional war,” Horowitz told the Bulletin.
Or, as the report puts it, AI-induced time pressure could lead to a chain of decision-making that, in the worst cases, could result in a country launching a pre-emptive nuclear attack. “Fear of losing quickly could create incentives for more rapid escalation to the nuclear level.”
The report predicts that there’s a pretty strong likelihood that more automation will “creep its way” into nuclear operations over time—especially as nations modernize their nuclear forces. The United States has already embarked on a multi-decade, trillion-dollar-plus plan to upgrade its nuclear forces; Russia and China are similarly modernizing theirs.