The Rise of Military AI and the Military-Tech Complex
The fusion of the military and AI isn't just about smarter weapons or faster decision-making on the battlefield. It's an intricate dance between power, ethics, strategy, and technology
In the rapidly evolving landscape of technology, artificial intelligence stands as an engine of innovation, transforming industries from healthcare to finance. Yet, one of its most profound impacts is in a sector where the stakes are highest: the military.
This fusion of the military and AI isn't just about smarter weapons or faster decision-making on the battlefield. It's an intricate dance between power, ethics, strategy, and technology. As tech giants and defence startups alike are drafted into this new arms race, the implications stretch beyond combat zones. The militarization of AI is more than a technological trend; it's a seismic shift in how nations prepare, defend, and assert their place in the world.
In this article, we will focus on the relationship between the tech industry and the military (the Military-Tech Complex), and how artificial intelligence is being used in the defence sector. In a future post, we will take a closer look at the impact drones and robots have on battlefields.
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Silicon Valley’s relationship with the military
Before we explore the current relationship between tech and the military, I think it is worth examining the early history of Silicon Valley and the role defence funding played in creating it. There is a myth that Silicon Valley was built by engineers starting their companies from garages, supported by wealthy investors seeing potential in what they do. But that is just that - a myth that hides the true roots of Silicon Valley.
Long before Apple and Google, before the rise of venture capital and the startup culture we know today, tech companies in Silicon Valley primarily served one customer - the US government. Silicon Valley was built with defence contracts and government funding to become the centre of innovation in order to secure the US position in the world.
The relationship between tech and the military began before the Second World War. Even before the term "Silicon Valley" was coined, radio technology was a defining innovation of the Bay Area. This was soon followed by radar and the burgeoning electronics sector during the war. In the 1940s and 1950s, the US government started funding universities for research into technologies that could enhance weapon systems. This funding bolstered advancements in radio and radar and also spurred the development of transistors, integrated circuits, and computers. Government grants and military contracts supported foundational research and provided a source of revenue alongside commercial sales of early products.
Even the roots of the startup culture can be traced back to this era. Fred Terman, dean of engineering at Stanford University who played a major role in laying down the foundations for the technological renaissance to come from Silicon Valley, encouraged graduate students and professors to spin their research into startups that sold products to defence contractors. The story of a college dropout founder taking their brilliant idea to IPO began at Stanford in the 1950s, as a way to find a practical military application of emerging technologies.
The role the US military and government played in creating Silicon Valley is a story on its own that can fill an entire book. For a quick rundown through the history of Silicon Valley, I recommend watching this video from The Cynical Historian. If you want to dive deeper into how military research and development funding kickstarted the tech industry, I recommend checking out Steve Blank’s Secret History of Silicon Valley lecture.
From the 1970s and 1980s, venture capital started to take a bigger part in the valley. Before that, private investment in Silicon Valley companies practically did not exist. The overwhelming majority of money in Silicon Valley was coming from defence R&D projects.
The rise of venture capital funding, with their focus on producing profitable investments, shifted Silicon Valley into a profit-driven model, aimed at customers and businesses rather than government agencies or defence projects. From this model, companies such as Apple or Microsoft emerged.
Meanwhile, the defence projects were not designed to generate profits. Their primary goal was to develop new technologies for military use, and they had the freedom to pursue any idea. Thanks to these projects, we have innovations such as the Internet, GPS, and self-driving cars. Even Siri can trace its origins back to defence research projects through SRI International.
This new wave of VC-funded, customer-orientated didn’t have to look for defence contracts as a source of revenue. The hesitation to collaborate with defence agencies might also be rooted in the backgrounds of those who founded and worked at these companies. Many of them were participants in the counterculture movements from the 1960s to the early 1970s. They protested against the Vietnam War and opposed mandatory conscription. Advocating for pacifism and exhibiting mistrust towards authority, they carried these values forward. When they began establishing their own businesses, they embedded many of the ideals of the counterculture movement into the foundations of their companies and the broader startup culture they influenced.
However, that does not mean tech companies didn't benefit from research funded by the US government. The Internet is a prime example of such a project. Originally developed as a system for time-sharing computer resources under the leadership of ARPA (a Department of Defense agency that later became DARPA), it evolved into the network we recognize today, from which tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook emerged.
In the 2010s, machine learning began transforming the tech industry. Computers became highly adept at recognizing objects and making autonomous decisions. These advancements caught the attention of the US military, leading to the launch of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team (AWCFT), commonly known as Project Maven, in 2017. Its main objective was to harness the capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning for military operations. To achieve this, the US Department of Defense partnered with the private sector, bringing in a range of companies—from tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft to specialized AI and defence startups—to contribute to the project.
Project Maven gained significant attention because of the controversy surrounding Google's participation. Initially, Google supplied AI technologies for drone imagery analysis. The AI was designed to sift through vast volumes of video footage from drones, aiding human analysts in identifying potential targets or points of interest, thus streamlining data analysis. However, in 2018, after employee protests and widespread criticism, Google withdrew from Project Maven. This incident sparked intense debates about human rights and the ethical implications of developing AI for autonomous weapons. It also prompted renowned AI researchers, including Turing Prize winner Yoshua Bengio, as well as DeepMind founders Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg, and Mustafa Suleyman, to pledge not to work on lethal AI.
Another attempt of Big Tech to enter defence contracts, Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI in short), the Pentagon’s plan to use cloud computing, also ended prematurely. A 10-year contract worth $10 billion was awarded to Microsoft over Amazon in 2019. Some Microsoft employees urged the company to not bid on the contract but that was not what cancelled the project. Shortly after Microsoft secured the contract, Amazon filed a lawsuit alleging that the decision was influenced by former President Donald Trump's animosity towards then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos. Instead of facing a lengthy lawsuit, the US Department of Defence decided to cancel the contract and “move forward on a different path to secure mission-critical technology”.
Over in Europe, in 2021, when Spotify founder Daniel Ek invested €100 million ($109 million) into Helsing, a company working on AI solutions for the defence sector, many Spotify users expressed outrage that their subscription dollars were being used to fund the arms industry.
Then everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine.
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