On January 29th, 2018, AI ExpoAfrica, launched the first ”Artificial Intelligence Convention” in Cape Town, South Africa. The promoters sold the event as ”the Fourth Industrial Revolution in full swing.”
”With emerging technology breakthroughs in AI now going mainstream, understanding the business opportunity has never been more paramount. We are therefore focusing on real-world trends driving the AI Economy in Africa, and seeking to build an AI Business focus across the continent.”
Aside from the potentially explosive market opportunities, AI is a rapidly growing field of technology with potentially significant implications for African security as well. New branches of the technology can now facilitate autonomous operations, lead to more informed military decision-making, and increase the speed and scale of military action.
As such, many nations are developing AI applications for a range of military functions. AI research is underway in the fields of intelligence collection, analysis, logistics, cyber-operations, communications, command and control, and in a variety of semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons and vehicles. Already, AI has been incorporated into military operations in both Iraq and Syria; and has been used by Western and Chinese governments to track ISIS, Niger-Delta Militants, and Boko Haram.
Potential international rivals, therefore, are creating pressure for African states to compete for innovative military AI applications. China is a leading competitor in this regard, releasing a plan in 2017 to capture the global lead in AI development by 2030; primarily focused on using AI to make faster decisions, and a variety of autonomous military vehicles. Russia is also active in military AI development, with a primary focus on drones and robotics.
However, although AI has the potential to impart several advantages in the military context, it may also introduce distinct challenges.
Firstly, AI on its own, or in the process of controlling a weapon, drone, or vehicle, will be unpredictable and vulnerable to unique forms of attack or manipulation.
AI technologies also present unique challenges for military integration, mainly because the bulk of AI development is happening in the commercial sector. Thus, many AI applications must undergo significant modification before being functional for the military.
Some cultural issues are also an impediment, as some private AI companies are reluctant to partner with Defense Ministries due to ethical concerns. Even within the government, there can be resistance to incorporating AI technology into existing weapons systems and processes.
As a result of these factors, analysts hold a broad range of opinions on how influential AI will be in future combat operations. While a small number believe the technology will have minimal impact, most believe that AI will have an evolutionary and revolutionary effect.