NTI Seminar: A Stable Nuclear Future? Autonomous Systems, Artificial Intelligence and Strategic Stability with UPenn’s Michael C. Horowitz

This post was written by Taylor Sullivan, an intern on NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program team. Taylor is a senior at Georgetown University majoring in Government with minors in History and Economics.

As countries around the world develop artificial intelligence capabilities, how will the international nuclear security environment be impacted?  NTI hosted expert Michael C. Horowitz, a professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, for a seminar on Nov. 9 that investigated the implications of autonomous weapons systems on prospects of a stable nuclear future.

Following a detailed introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and its theoretical role in military technology, Horowitz identified key factors that incentivize the development of AI for leaders of nuclear-capable countries. These included the speed, precision, bandwidth, and decision-making of autonomous systems. The speed of global conflict is faster than ever, Horowitz said, and autonomous programs offer the ability to respond to threats faster than human-run systems. Additionally, many experts argue that AI systems provide greater accuracy because they are unaffected by human weaknesses, such as emotion or error.

Though the United States has expressed a commitment to maintaining a certain level of human control over its nuclear arsenal, other countries including Russia, China, and North Korea have signaled their interest in autonomous weapons, including uninhabited nuclear vehicles.

As these countries push for automatization, what are the implications for the international nuclear security environment? Horowitz said:

  • The less secure a country’s leader believes his or her second-strike capabilities to be, the more likely that country is to employ autonomous systems within its nuclear weapons complex.
  • There is “some risk associated with greater automation in early warning systems.” Though autonomous early warning systems can theoretically identify threats faster and more reliably, Horowitz warned that potential downsides of such systems include the lack of human judgment, the brittleness of algorithms, and increased false alarms.
  • There potentially is a “large risk associated with the impact of conventional military uses of autonomy on crisis stability.” Although fighting at machine speed can allow a country to win a conflict faster, it also can lead to a quicker loss. This fear, according to Horowitz, could incentivize leaders of nuclear countries to automate their first strike capability. 

Such discussions are necessary as more countries turn to AI as the answer to their security vulnerabilities. Horowitz quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promise that AI is the future “for all of humankind,” and that whoever leads in this technological race will become the “ruler of the world." 

November 15, 2018

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