Year 2021
October 2021

Military use of artificial intelligence has potential for ‘destruction and disruption’: Ng Eng Hen

October 12, 2021
By Aqil Haziq Mahmud

SINGAPORE: The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the military is one of three things that has “great potential impact for destruction and disruption in our time”, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Tuesday (Oct 12).

The other two are cyberattacks and a contest for dominance in outer space, he said in his welcome address at the third edition of the Singapore Defence Technology Summit.

Dr Ng called autonomous technologies and AI a “big area to discuss”, as militaries seek to exploit the potential of AI to deal with complex and large amounts of data while making better and faster decisions.

The world will likely see a “steady increase” in the integration of AI in military systems, according to a 2020 report by RAND Corporation. This produces risks from ethical, strategic and operational standpoints.

For instance, operational risks arise from the reliability, fragility and security of AI systems, while strategic risks include the possibility that AI will increase the likelihood of war, escalate ongoing conflicts and proliferate malicious actors, the report said.

The US military, which has long invested in AI, faces “significant international competition” from both China and Russia, which are pursuing militarised AI technologies, the report added.

The Singapore Armed Forces is also making advancements in AI. In September, it unveiled a new command and control system that uses AI and data analytics to recommend weapons and help commanders make faster and more effective decisions.

“But can we tolerate mistakes, ultra-low statistically, but that result in loss of innocent lives or precipitate consequences from which there can be no retreat? What safeguards are needed, to be built in AI systems for robustness and accountability?” Dr Ng asked on Tuesday.

“These and other challenges, I think, are worth your attention.”

This year’s summit will examine the impact of recent disruptions to government organisations and industries, and discuss how they can prepare for future disruptions, said the Defence Science and Technology Agency, which hosted the event. 

Dr Ng said countries can pursue multilateral arrangements to address the risk of irresponsibly using AI in military applications.

This includes the AI Partnership for Defense, which has brought together like-minded countries to promote and advance the responsible development and use of AI in the military.

Last year, Singapore published the second edition of its Model AI Governance Framework, incorporating feedback and experiences of leading international forums such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Expert Group on AI and the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group.

“This year, we established the preliminary AI guiding principles of ‘responsible, safe, reliable and robust’ for our defence establishment, and will continue to participate actively in multilateral cooperation on AI technologies, governance and policy,” Dr Ng said.


Another area to discuss, Dr Ng said, is outer space, where there is contest for dominance if not supremacy.

Dr Lonneke Peperkamp, an assistant professor at Radboud University who studies war theory and space ethics, wrote in a 2020 journal article that the militarisation of space “seems to be really taking off” in recent years.

For example, various states now have anti-satellite weapons. Testing them results in a significant amount of space debris that orbit the earth, she said.

After years of debate, the US also launched its Space Force in December 2019, while France and several other countries have similar plans.

“Clearly, states are becoming increasingly proactive when it comes to the (further) militarisation of outer space,” she wrote.

Dr Ng said assets and capabilities in space are now critical to many facets of normal function of life on earth, which anti-satellite systems can cripple.

“As the number of private and state actors in space grow, space can become a militarised zone and strategic miscalculations and inadvertent escalations can ensue,” he added.


Dr Ng also touched on the digital domain, which he described as a “contested battle space”.

“Attacks in the digital battlefield pose a growing threat that can easily spill over, explode and wreak unintended havoc on the rest of society,” he said.

“These include disruption of hospital care, transport and power grids, as well as financial institutions, just to name a few.”

Examples of such attacks include those on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, Ukraine’s power grid and SolarWinds, a company that produces software used by multiple US government departments.

Dr Ng said the scale, scope and frequency of cyberattacks are expected to rise, with non-state actors increasingly conducting hits using tools like malware, ransomware, misinformation, disinformation and influence campaigns against private corporations and governments.

In August, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defense signed an agreement on cyberspace cooperation, aimed at institutionalising cyber cooperation between both defence establishments.

The agreement is expected to improve cooperation in information sharing, ops-to-ops and technical exchanges, as well as collaboration in regional capacity-building efforts.

Dr Ng said the defence technology community should address, in this summit and elsewhere, how and what rules should govern the digital domain.

“The need for frameworks to guide state and commercial behaviour in cyber, artificial intelligence, big data and other emerging domains has become more urgent,” he stated.

“Just as in the kinetic world, the digital domain must move from an unfettered, no-rules based, ‘who dares, wins’ architecture to one that prevents high-stakes catastrophes and disruption to civilian life.”

Source: CNA/hz(gs)
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