Of all the risks from AI to humanity debated so far, the use of the technology on the battlefield sounds the scariest. This article talks about how drones used for military purposes have gone mass scale for the first time in history. Whilst drones have been in existence for long, the mass use has been limited by prohibitive costs. The Economist highlights its use in the ongoing war in Ukraine:

“Our report this week shows how first-person view (FPV) drones are mushrooming along the front lines. They are small, cheap, explosives-laden aircraft adapted from consumer models, and they are making a soldier’s life even more dangerous. These drones slip into tank turrets or dugouts. They loiter and pursue their quarry before going for the kill. They are inflicting a heavy toll on infantry and armour.

The war is also making FPV drones and their maritime cousins ubiquitous. January saw 3,000 verified FPV drone strikes. This week Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, created the Unmanned Systems Force, dedicated to drone warfare. In 2024 Ukraine is on track to build 1m-2m drones.”

And the mass adoption of drones as armament is thanks to consumer technology. Unlike the past when much of innovation came from defence research and later got used for enterprise and consumer use cases, consumer tech has led innovation here as well, much like elsewhere these days:

“The exponential growth in the number of Russian and Ukrainian drones points to a second trend. They are inspired by and adapted from widely available consumer technology. Not only in Ukraine but also in Myanmar, where rebels have routed government forces in recent days, volunteers can use 3D printers to make key components and assemble airframes in small workshops. Unfortunately, criminal groups and terrorists are unlikely to be far behind the militias.

This reflects a broad democratisation of precision weapons. In Yemen the Houthi rebel group has used cheap Iranian guidance kits to build anti-ship missiles that are posing a deadly threat to commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

…The reason goes back to consumer electronics, which propel innovation at a blistering pace as capabilities accumulate in every product cycle.”

And here’s the scariest part. These drones can go autonomous as well:

“Today, FPV drone use is limited by the supply of skilled pilots and by the effects of jamming, which can sever the connection between a drone and its operator. To overcome these problems, Russia and Ukraine are experimenting with autonomous navigation and target recognition. Artificial intelligence has been available in consumer drones for years and is improving rapidly.

A degree of autonomy has existed on high-end munitions for years and on cruise missiles for decades. The novelty is that cheap microchips and software will let intelligence sit inside millions of low-end munitions that are saturating the battlefield.”

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