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Posted on Jun 26, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ArtificiaI Intelligence. Book Review

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ArtificiaI Intelligence. Book Review

Ray Garbee

AI at War: How Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning are Changing Naval Warfare. Edited by Sam J. Tangredi and George Galdorisi Publisher: Naval Institute Press. Price $49.95 ISBN: 1682476065

Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become leader of the world.

Vladimir Putin, 1 September 2017

“There are no points for second place

“Viper”, Top Gun 1986

The birth of AI is coming, and it’s going to be messy.

You’re thinking about Skynet, aren’t you? Or maybe the visage of giant, self-aware autonomous armored vehicles rolling across the battlefield dealing death and destruction as they execute their instructions. Well, relax, because it’s not going to be a self-aware AI like Skynet or lumbering super tanks…well, at least not like Steve Jackson’s Ogres or Keith Laumer’s Bolo’s. But after reading AI at War, it’s clear we stand on the edge of another technological revolution with the potential to reshape the geopolitical balance as we know it.


AI at War, edited by Sam J. Tangredi and George Galdorisi, presents a picture of the state of the disciplines of artificial intelligence and machine learning and what it could mean for naval strategy and military operations across a spectrum of domains.

With a title like AI at War, it’s understandable if you warily expect a dense, symbolist tome loaded with complex formula and arcane references to things like random forest algorithms. Well good news, everyone! AI at War is not a statistics text, but instead a survey of what artificial intelligence (AI) could mean for military professionals, civilian leaders and the way strategy and tactics are implemented. Automation is definitely coming, as demonstrated in physical platforms like the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray program, Turkey’s STM Kargu-2 drone, or first steps like the Russian Uran-9 armored fighting vehicle. But it’s much more than hardware. The more common applications will be expert systems that collect, collate and analyze information to reduce decision cycle time and support human decision makers.

The MQ-25 refuels a Navy FA-18 during a test flight at MidAmerica Airport in Illinois. Image from: Boeing

Woven into the narrative is the warning that artificial intelligence represents not just a technological revolution in terms of hardware and operational tactics, but also a set of tools that will test the ability of democratic states to compete against nondemocratic, technologically capable peers in a way not previously possible.

The book provides an excellent overview of the challenge artificial intelligence represents, both in terms of development and execution. The introduction walks the reader through defining precisely what the terms “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” represent, along with a brief history of past efforts along with a discussion of the philosophy underpinning those efforts.

AI at War is a broad survey with chapters focused on topics ranging from a discussion of how great powers will likely formulate AI technology goals that support their own unique national policy requirements through how to best educate midshipmen (and by extension other military leaders) for leading and fighting in the coming digital world.

Author Sam J. Tangredi explore issues of how AI and machine learning can be used to extend the reach and power of an authoritarian state in centralizing command and control of their military forces and how those same tools could be leveraged in the civil sphere in identifying dissent and preventing it from growing into a challenge to the state’s authority.

An interesting point raised in terms of Great Power competition was drawn from the historical Cold War regarding nuclear weapons proliferation. Cyberwarfare – within which AI can be considered a subset – is ascending in importance in national security and in discussions between national leaders. This was on display during the first meeting between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and The United States of America’s Joseph Biden in 2021. Historically, treaties have been used to regulate and restrict the use and deployment of certain types of weapons. That model could hold some promise towards regulating the forms AI systems take within the modern battlespace. As was the case with prior arms control negotiations, achieving such an agreement regarding AI will not be an easy task.

A common theme is how AI can be used to effectively implement Col. John Boyd’s concept of the OODA loop. Various authors look at the ways that automating functions such as intelligence collation and processing, threat assessment, communications and to varying degrees command control decisions can be integrated into the “Observe” and “Decide” functions to create faster processing cycles which ideally translate into an operational advantage.

Micheal O’Gara explores how AI could be integrated for the naval commander through the lens of integrating fire in naval combat. In laymen’s terms he’s talking about attacking an opponent. Reaching the decision point to attack is a complex task that represents the cost benefit analysis of risk to your force against the benefit of neutralizing the other guy. As O’Gara puts it “…AI could comprehensively support the commander’s decision and force assignment in phase four of the fires cycle”. Autonomous weapons and even unmanned vessels are all part of the effort to improve the integrated fire cycles.

Translating this integration down to the sharp point of the spear, Nina Kollars looks at the role AI can play for the front-line warfighter. Viewing AI the through the lens of a hypothetical situation ala “Duffer’s Drift”, Kollars examines not just how AI could provide practical support with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) tasks, but also how true innovation will stem from bottom up solutions designed to address the immediate issues facing the ‘end user’ in the field.

The coming AI revolution will have clear winners and losers. Vladimir Putin has stated that whomever is first to achieve mastery of AI systems will rule the world, and to quote Reese Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” AI at War imparts to the reader a clear sense of the challenges and efforts that are required in mastering AI systems as well as the costs of failing to be competitive. It would be easy to dismiss the book as a document designed to justify funding the military-digital complex, but that would be unfair.

While, AI at War does support increased investment in these technologies, it does so in a measured way showing both the opportunities and limits available with current technology. Remember in the 1990’s when the trend was appending “Joint” to every possible task and mission? AI runs the same risk as it casts a wide net in search of opportunities for disrupting the status quo. Like it’s sibling, the IT tech sector, AI runs the risk of over-promising and underdelivering results to the end user.

The authors explore opportunities to partner an AI with a human decision maker as well as identify situations that could benefit from rote automation through machine learning. The authors pull no punches in showcasing the challenges to be overcome in pursuit of truly intelligent systems. But they strike an optimistic tone regarding ISR and Command and Control (C2) applications. Against this hype, we’re familiar with the concept that weapon performance rarely lives up to the claims of the contractor. AI, or rather machine learning systems, may be ready for development and in some cases deployment, but that self-aware AI system is still the stuff of science fiction.

AI at War is a timely work that readers will find valuable. Numerous ideas that once seemed to fall in the science fiction camp are rapidly moving towards reality. The near real-time monitoring of troops performance and behavior and the rise in autonomous weapons platforms are but two areas that call to mind the prior literary work of John Scalzi and Keith Laumer. Written for a non-technical audience, AI at War will appeal to readers far beyond the military and national security professional.

The essays raise many questions regarding how AI could be used to improve existing practices as well as explore how AI could transform future conflict. It’s an engaging and thoughtful book. Reading the various essays, I was struck that reading history books is a useful endeavor in understanding how we got here, but focusing on the past makes us unlikely to recognize the future as it becomes present.

Let’s be clear, this book is not an exploration of cyberwarfare techniques and challenges.  It’s not going to help you directly tighten up your network security. Rather, AI at War examines the goals and objectives of national leadership and military professionals with regard to the development and implementation of AI systems. The various essays will get the reader thinking about how automation, machine learning and expert systems might be leveraged for national security and possibly spark some ideas for future application.  The authors rarely draw concrete conclusions, but rather raise many points that warrant follow up in discussion and future research.

For readers interested in a one volume reference on how AI may impact military operations and national competition, AI at War does solid work in informing the reader regarding the opportunities for the rapidly approaching technological revolution. In 1963, JFK said “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” The book serves as a valuable tool for framing our goals in the present while we define the requirements for that future.  

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