Author : Varya Srivastava

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 06, 2024

Warfare is evolving from physical conflicts to invisible technological attacks, thus reshaping our understanding of security, power, and the military-industrial complex in the age of AI.

Military industrial complex in the age of AI

Source Image: United Nations University

Eisenhower first used the term ‘military-industrial complex’ in the 1960s to describe the mutually symbiotic relationship between the defence technology manufacturers and the government that emerged in the context of an aggressive American foreign policy and the volatile geopolitics of the 20th century. This was built on unfair market conditions that favoured a few private players and strong state control that operated in a black box with limited accountability and oversight. 

Since then a lot has changed. 

Narratives of unipolar Western hegemony and the ‘end of history’ have given way to a multipolar reality. Our social contract with our own states (i.e. national governments) is changing with the rise of Big Tech companies. The nature of war and our battlefields is expanding from ‘hot’ physical conflicts to ‘cold’ invisible technological attacks and existential risks. This point of inflection is altering our understanding of security and power, and providing us with a unique opportunity to rethink our views on the military-industrial complex in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

Narratives of unipolar Western hegemony and the ‘end of history’ have given way to a multipolar reality. Our social contract with our own states (i.e. national governments) is changing with the rise of Big Tech companies.

Defence and innovation

Our earliest impressions of AI come from either science fiction books or decryption technology built during World War II. While science fiction serves more as an inspiration rather than tangible action; the work on decryption technology forms the basis on which our modern AI systems exist. The early suspects for driving innovation in this decryption technology have been Alan Turning, Marvin Minsky, and John McCathy—Minsky served in the US Navy, McCathy served in the US Army, and Turning had most of his research regulated by the British government and defence.  

Here defence and security have been understood in terms of hard-power and combat preparedness. The ‘enemy’ is understood as another antagonistic community, country, or ideology. Violence is seen as a means to retain power and neutralise the ‘enemy’. For Eisenhower, often this ‘enemy’ was manufactured by the political elite to make sure that a few private players could continue making profit and in turn support the political elite in retaining power. This self-serving relationship was the military-industrial complex. 

For most early innovators and technologists, the government in general and the military in particular have been their first funder. They have been providers of the sandbox in which new technology was imagined. They have incentivised the creation of technologies that made sure citizens of one country could be protected at the cost of human life from another ‘enemy’ country, community, or identity. Even as of 2021, governments across the world spend (on average) 2.6 percent of their GDP on research and innovation. However, they are slowly being replaced as the primary funder of innovation. 

For most early innovators and technologists, the government in general and the military in particular have been their first funder. They have been providers of the sandbox in which new technology was imagined.

A gradual combination of commercialisation and democratisation is creating a new ecosystem in which technological innovation is being privatised. This has helped improve quality and span of life across the world, and facilitated improved access to basic necessities like food, shelter and education. Today, on average, more frontier technological innovation comes from private players than from defence laboratories. Most governments are often left to play catch-up on new advancements in the role of regulators. The creation and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines is an important example of this.

Rethinking ‘defence’

This change in the balance of power between governments and private players for innovation provides us with an important opportunity to rethink ‘defence’. 

What if, instead of looking at ‘defence’ through the narrow scope of protecting one country’s interest and citizens against some political conception of an ‘enemy’, we understand ‘defence’ as providing dignity and security to all human beings against challenges of automation, climate change, ageing (and diseases), and governance. Most humans today don't face threats from missiles and bombs. They are instead grappling with—heatwaves, pandemics, new forms of cancer, economic insecurity, and access to political participation, amongst others.

What if, instead of looking at ‘defence’ through the narrow scope of protecting one country’s interest and citizens against some political conception of an ‘enemy’, we understand ‘defence’ as providing dignity and security to all human beings against challenges of automation, climate change, ageing (and diseases), and governance.

As of today, most private technology players think of innovation with a primary goal of profits. This tends to put them at odds with the interests of individuals and governments for whom the technology is built. In a way, this leads to the same challenges the military-industrial complex had—concentration of power and exploitation of individuals. Ultimately, the military-industrial complex is a market structure as well. 

By rethinking ‘defence’ (and defence expenditure), we can build new market incentive structures that are designed to protect human dignity and security. 

This is not to say that conflict and militaries will disappear. If the Russia-Ukraine war and Israel-Palestine war have shown us anything, it is that despite all our progress, wars are still a reality. However, if our private markets and players are successful in adopting this new definition of ‘defence’, it will provide deterrence and an alternative to the traditional notions of war.


Varya Srivastava is the VP of Product and Govt. Affairs at Network Capital. 

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Author

Varya Srivastava

Varya Srivastava

VVarya Srivastava - Varya is the VP of Product and Govt. Affairs atNetwork Capital. In this capacity she works closely with the Government of India's ...

Read More +