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UK Leaping into the Artificial Intelligence Frontier

20 January 2021

6 mins

In this blog, Loughborough University London graduate Tomhas discusses the decision for the UK to increase its spending on cyber security defence and the use of Artificial Intelligence. Tomhas studied within the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance and graduated in 2019.


Despite news cycles being dominated by Covid-19 and Brexit, the UK Government’s delayed ‘Integrated Review’ of the country’s foreign, security and defence policies have already made one major headline: the decision to substantially increase UK defence spending by £16 billion.

Part of that increase will boost the technological resilience of the UK’s post-Brexit defence, security and foreign policies. In addition to the introduction of the RAF’s Space Command, expanded research into energy weapons, and further development of cyber security capabilities, the Ministry of Defence will become the home of a department dedicated to Artificial Intelligence (AI). The focus of this institute will be the research and application of AI into Defence and Security purposes. It points to how the UK expects its security and diplomacy to have to increasingly face an AI and cyber-orientated frontier. 

While we should not start worrying about jack-booted death machines conquering the UK, we are reaching a time when AI will unleash global as well as local transformations in not only defence and security affairs, but in everything else from foreign to social policy. The AI dimension to the Integrated Review therefore warrants careful reading because of what it could mean for the UK’s security at home and abroad.

AI, The Future in the Present

While AI presents many exciting opportunities, a central part of any Integrated Review is to assess the risks and the risks from AI go beyond anything any traditional military and security assessments grapple with. As a relatively new development, the uncertainty and potential it introduces have not been fully researched or understood. Currently AI consists of algorithms that work to lessen the need for direct human interaction, automation being the key element in tasks such as gathering data and organising mass information and intelligence.

Recent innovations in AI mean it will soon play an intricate role in daily life, with the potential that eventually it will take over entire occupations and replace whole workforces. Dr Aziz, a professor, author at the New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, has set out the notion of an entirely new social class defined by the fact that they have been replaced by machines. On the one hand this development can create anxiety and fear. On the other it offers the possibility of rapid progress, such as by enhancing the way society works, such as automatically providing legal aid for refugees. Automation provides individual and society the chance to grow in other fields and issues that require attention.

Despite these innovations, the UK MoD’s new AI department will be exploring what remains a largely unknown field. The only agreed assessment, as AI expert Eleizer Yudkowsky has made clear, is that it is too early to state we understand AI. That is a neat enough summary of a development which could hypothetically change not only the UK’s security and defence but regulate, as Yuval Harari argues, our very notions of choice and evolve the very way the mind works.

AI On the Front Line

Giving some focus to AI is also part of  the ‘Global Britain’ initiative, which seeks to ensure that the UK remains a significant global player. Large states such as the US, China, Russia and the EU have begun exploring the new military capabilities of AI. Russia’s Kalashnikov arms manufacturer in particular has stated they are developing the technology for ‘self-learning’ weapons. The UK will need to utilise AI similarly to enhance defence capability, preparing for an increasingly technologically dominated battlefield.

In order to ensure the UK is ready, a number of actions must be undertaken both internally and externally. Government policy makers and senior decision-makers should have the relevant training regarding innovative technology and be proficient in AI literature. A number of traditional values within the military and foreign office will be challenged and will require adapting to new norms. Cooperation with experts within the AI community is critical for successful integration and risk-averse assessments, enabling joint missions between military cohorts and with UK allies in NATO.

AI, however, will not just be applied to hard power. AI has potential when it comes to soft power. It means that countries will deploy AI to achieve diplomatic influence (e.g. social media) through to conducting cyber-attacks through ‘weaponised malware’ . The UK’s GCHQ, which has long played a leading if hidden role in UK security, will play an even bigger role in the UK’s AI efforts at global influence as well as security and defence.

Negotiating AI?

The potential for AI to upend global defence and security arrangements means there will be growing pressure for some form of global agreements to manage this change. Without this, the destructive use of AI could run rampant globally. At the moment, multilateral entities such as the United Nations have yet to put in place regulations and parameters for states to agree over the implementation and usage of AI technologies, in particular over weapons development.

Nevertheless, even with some regulations in place, the UK will need to accept the wider potential threat to global stability that this technology poses. As the AI and cyber realms evolve they will grow to be on a par with nuclear deterrence and biological warfare. This is because AI has the potential to inflict massive damage on everything from a single individual to a whole state and region.  

The UK, of course, is not alone in adapting to the challenges of AI. The EU has invested in cyber-resilience and UNESCO has drawn up a statement on the ethos of AI. The UK needs to assist in seeking a unified and strong agreement to prevent escalation of AI involvement in warfare.

At the same time, the UK looks set to demonstrate in its Integrated Review an awareness that the threat from AI needs financial investment to ensure it is a viable contender in the Cyber-Arms race and  that diplomatic efforts will be needed to limit the potential for AI-enhanced conflicts.

AI, the Final Frontier

The UK’s Integrated Review is one of leading attempts by a country to grapple with a global trend of countries expanding their capabilities and presence in the field of AI. The creation of a department of AI is therefore one step in a long process of better understanding AI. A lot more focus on national and international agreements will be required, particularly if there is to be a wider demystifying of AI to better understand the risks it poses. UK policy makers have made a start, but the department for AI will need to be developed further in order to lay the foundation of an AI-oriented infrastructure at both home and abroad.


Tomhas Hardy graduated with an MSc in Security, Peace-building and Diplomacy in 2019 from Loughborough University London. Tom has previously worked at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House and currently works for the Ministry of Justice.

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