Artificial intelligence as a weapon of war

Artificial intelligence is revolutionising how war is waged, with autonomous systems capable of identifying military targets. Even so, this new technological arms race is causing concern in the international community, which insists on the need for governance mechanisms to manage its use.


The militarisation of artificial intelligence is nothing new. For example, missiles and air defence systems have been capable of autonomously selecting and eliminating targets for decades. However, recent developments in this technological field have raised the integration of AI into weapons systems to an unprecedented level.

The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the effectiveness of the use of autonomous drones by both the Russians and Ukrainians, even so, this technology is being used in a wide range of other military applications. From facial recognition systems to autonomous vehicles, AI enables the military to improve accuracy, speed, and decision-making capabilities in combat operations. In addition, deep learning algorithms can analyse vast amounts of data to optimise the maintenance of weapon systems, predict enemy movements, or improve the tactics and strategy of military engagements.

Moreover, some of these autonomous systems enable missions, such as raids, air strikes and state-sponsored assassinations, that would otherwise be difficult to carry out because of the danger of losing pilots, the political or diplomatic backlash and international law repercussions. Therefore, this paradigm shift raises many ethical and legal questions about the responsibility for using and controlling autonomous weapons systems that have generated concern in the international community.


Algorithms targeting people in Gaza

The Israeli genocide against the Palestinians has made the need for mechanisms to regulate the use of AI in the military even more apparent. Six Israeli intelligence officials claimed in a report, written by investigative journalist Yuval Abraham and published by the Israeli-Palestinian magazine +972, that artificial intelligence systems have played a key role in the identification – and possible misidentification – of tens of thousands of targets in Gaza.

During the early days of the military intervention, this hitherto secret artificial intelligence system called Lavender used a database to identify 37,000 potential targets based on their alleged links to the Palestinian resistance. Army commanders gave their approval for officers to adopt the lists of people to kill selected by Lavender, without any requirement to check or challenge the algorithm’s selections or to examine the intelligence data on which they were based.

One of the officers who used Lavender questioned whether the role of humans in the selection process made sense. “I would invest 20 seconds for each target at this stage and do dozens of them every day. I had zero added value as a human, apart from being a stamp of approval. It saved a lot of time.”

Other officers described how, for certain categories of targets, Israeli forces applied “pre-authorised” margins on the estimated number of civilians who could be killed before a strike was authorised. Specifically, during the first weeks of the bombing, they were allowed to kill up to 20 civilians during airstrikes against low-ranking militants, destroying entire houses and killing all their occupants.

International humanitarian law experts consulted by The Guardian expressed alarm at the information that the IDF would knowingly accept and authorise collateral damage to this large number of civilians, noting that the military has to assess the proportionality of each attack. This is unlikely to happen unless a whole set of ethical and regulatory standards are developed and enforced in militarising the use of AI.


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