AI, Cyberspace, and Nuclear Weapons

January 31, 2020
James Johnson and Eleanor Krabill

The following is an excerpt from War on the Rocks.

A new generation of AI-augmented offensive cyber capabilities will likely exacerbate the military escalation risks associated with emerging technology, especially inadvertent and accidental escalation. Examples include the increasing vulnerability of nuclear command, control, and communication (NC3) systems to cyber attacks. Further, the challenges posed by remote sensing technology, autonomous vehicles, conventional precision munitions, and hypersonic weapons to hitherto concealed and hardened nuclear assets. Taken together, this trend might further erode the survivability of states’ nuclear forces.

AI, and the state-of-the-art capabilities it empowers, is a natural manifestation — not the cause or origin — of an established trend in emerging technology. The increasing speed of war, the shortening of the decision-making timeframe, and the co-mingling of nuclear and conventional capabilities are leading states to adopt destabilizing launch postures.

The AI-Cyber Security Intersection

AI will make existing cyber warfare capabilities more powerful. Rapid advances in AI and increasing degrees of military autonomy could amplify the speed, power, and scale of future attacks in cyberspace. Specifically, there are three ways in which AI and cyber security converge in a military context.

First, advances in autonomy and machine learning mean that a much broader range of physical systems are now vulnerable to cyber attacks, including, hacking, spoofing, and data poisoning. In 2016, a hacker brought a Jeep to a standstill on a busy highway and then interfered with its steering system causing it to accelerate. Furthermore, machine learning-generated deepfake (i.e., audio or video manipulation), have added a new, and potentially more sinister, twist to the risk of miscalculation, misperception, and inadvertent escalation that originates in cyberspace but has a very real impact in the physical world. The scale of this problem ranges from smartphones and household electronic appliances, to farming equipment, roadways, and pacemakers — these applications are associated with the ubiquitous connectivity phenomena known as the Internet of Things.

Second, cyber attacks that target AI systems can offer attackers access to machine learning algorithms, and potentially vast amounts of data from facial recognition and intelligence collection and analysis systems. These things could be used, for example, to cue precision munitions strikes and support intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

Third, AI systems used in conjunction with existing cyber offense tools might become powerful force multipliers, thus enabling sophisticated cyber attacks to be executed on a larger scale (both geographically and across networks), at faster speeds, simultaneously across multiple military domains, and with greater anonymity than before.

Many of the ways AI augments cyber capabilities to develop AI-enhanced cyber weapons (or “adversarial AI”) may appear relatively benign, for example, enumerating the target space or repackaging malware to avoid detection. However, the speed and scope of the next generation of AI cyber tools will likely have destabilizing effects.

Read the article in War on the Rocks.

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