Artificial Intelligence for India’s national security


The world seems to be transiting from the Age of Information to the Age of Artificial Intelligence. The mandate of the Age of Information was that one had to be well informed for achieving success in any field since knowledge-based decision-making was the key to that success. Information in this context could be defined as a fact or data that made a difference ‘between a decision and a guess’. As Intelligence is the information about ‘what lies ahead’ it is the foundation of effective ‘action’ in any sphere — from business to security. Intelligence makes way for ‘Decision’ which is followed by ‘Action’ — the two are sequential. That is why it is said that ‘Intelligence is information for action’ — though in security ‘not taking any further action’ may also be counted as a ‘decision’. The important thing is that today there is a newfound significance attached to the connectivity between Intelligence, Decision and Response.

Since Artificial Intelligence is the new gift of technology — that has presently become the ‘mantra’ of progress in business and related avocations — it is interesting to see what it can or cannot do for the cause of national security. Security has two components — accessing information about the secretive adversary and choosing the course of action to neutralise the latter. Artificial Intelligence generally bolsters the first part — the nature of ‘response’ in the sphere of security, however, is primarily a ‘human’ responsibility. AI can, of course, help to sharpen the instruments of ‘action’. This needs elaboration.

Technology makes a process ‘smart’ and Artificial Intelligence is all about making technology ‘smarter’. Now being ‘smart’ means being able to produce more per unit of resource consumed — including ‘time’ that is now regarded as a new resource — and that is why the prime area of utilisation of AI is in the business-related world since it is directly linked to ‘productivity’. The principal utility of AI there is in the collation and analysis of information available in the public domain for the purpose of reading the market trends, customer base and new demands on the horizon. In view of the enormity of data available — whose examination at one go would be beyond human comprehension — data analytics has emerged as an important technology tool in Business Intelligence.

National Security calls for accessing information about the well-guarded secrets of the enemy about which not much would be found in the examination of open information. In the age of Internet, cyber or digital communications however, there is a certain scope for ‘footprints’ of the adversary being left behind in that medium and that is why a scan of these communications receives priority of the security set-up. The difficult task of collecting human intelligence through secret means still remains the principal objective of Intelligence agencies. Intelligence is all about human activity — there is little scope for Intelligence on acts of nature like earthquakes — and this is why the human part of intelligence collection can never be entirely substituted by a technology-based endeavour like Artificial Intelligence for achieving that purpose.

Artificial Intelligence excels at finding insights and patterns in large data sets that humans just can’t see. In business, AI systems exist that use analytics to make predictions about consumer preferences, product development and marketing trends. AI is capable of unifying data across different sources and its algorithms are designed to produce findings in real time. Unlike passive machines that can produce predetermined readings, AI-assisted systems can process data coming in from digital information, satellite imagery, visual information, text or unstructured data and produce an instant signal. The success of AI, however, depends ultimately on the perfection of human input behind all algorithms. Activities in the public domain — whether commercial or professional — can allow malpractices to creep in even when AI was in operation. Arrangements have to be made, through consensus on self-regulation or government rules, to keep away misrepresentation, discrimination and fraud in the sale of products or services. Data misuse is, of course, a serious illegality in all situations and has to be averted.

The big data analytics associated with Artificial Intelligence has profoundly affected analysis and assessment function in various fields but in the area of national security these processes cannot do without mechanisms for ‘human oversight and control’ being placed on top. American military is said to be deploying AI to sift through the massive troves of data and video captured by surveillance primarily for alerting ‘human analysts’ about ‘patterns’ or abnormal and suspicious activity. In the context of national security, the response part is totally governed by the human decision-makers. It is possible that Command and Control might be in a position to delegate certain decisions in special circumstances to AI platforms out of compulsion of competition in time but it is unlikely that autonomous lethal systems, for instance, would be brought into play without putting ‘humans in the loop’.

With the advent of ‘proxy wars’, the ethical dimensions of a combat had taken a back seat adding to the unpredictability of the enemy’s moves and this is what makes both Intelligence collection and strategy of action an arduous challenge there. In a proxy or virtual warfare, the initiator of the offensive had an advantage but AI helps the efficacy of counter-offensive by identifying the sources behind the attack amidst haze and showing the way for a ‘punitive’ response to create deterrence.

While AI assisted analytics could sometimes produce a real time picture of a threat to national security, the choice of action to deal with it will require an application of human discretion taking into consideration aspects that a ‘machine’ was not equipped to handle. Threats and conflicts are creation of human beings and in both Intelligence analysis and decision about ‘action’, human intervention will be a necessary and desirable paradigm. Unlike in business, a flawed analysis or an unwise decision can cause grave harm to the nation.

In regard to nuclear arms, the doctrine of ‘deterrence’ keeps a country from provoking a war. However, covert offensives seem to be the order of the day and these have added to the importance of AI assisted systems of Intelligence collection and collation as also of counter measures. Use of drones and quadcopter for surveillance and surreptitious dropping of arms and explosives in Kashmir illustrates the new dimensions of proxy war that made the task of security so much more challenging.

In both Intelligence evaluation and response, Einstein’s famous dictum ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ has a great application — this is the human add-on to whatever Artificial Intelligence could provide to security. The imagination here is the ability to see beyond the available facts — with an awareness of human nature and psyche — and hit the right interpretation and make the right option of action.

Advances in AI will enhance national security by improving Intelligence collection and analysis, military capabilities and economic growth — national security, it may be mentioned, is inseparable from economic security. While analysis of Intelligence received from multiple sources is made easier and qualitatively superior, it has to be kept in mind that the capacity of the adversary to dish out ‘misinformation’ with the help of AI would also have increased. In the military field, providing long-range drone package delivery systems, is a good illustration of what AI-assisted technology can do to bolster the war effort. The flip side of this is that the enemy behind a ‘proxy war’ would also allow non-state actors to develop and use such AI-enabled instruments to their advantage. As regards the economy, AI is actively aiding its growth by developing new products with customer appeal and perfecting delivery systems. However, the big picture there is that dual use technologies would have to be reckoned with and monitored from the security angle.

AI, like any technology, would tend to be transparent and its applications developed for the country’s specific requirements will, therefore, have to be kept under wraps which is not an easy thing to do. Intelligence sharing and security cooperation among friendly countries is now tested on the willingness on either side to share the relevant technologies too. Fortunately, India is well placed to command the trust of its friends outside because of the deep convergence that had already been reached on national security issues with democracies like US, Japan and Israel.

Author: D.C. Pathak, a former director of India’s Intelligence Bureau.