Putin’s Comments on Artificial Intelligence Raise Questions about Future Geopolitics and Warfare

September 07, 2017 by Heather Hamilton-Post

Russia’s president spoke briefly about the future of artificial intelligence in the context of military applications, leading many to wonder how exactly AI will shape the way we go to war.

Russia’s president spoke briefly about the future of artificial intelligence in the context of military applications, leading many to wonder how exactly AI will shape the way we go to war.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is weighing in on artificial intelligence, reports RT. In a speech to students last week, Putin asserted that the country at the forefront of AI research, whichever it may be, will also dominate global affairs.

“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind,” he said. “It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”


Putin's comments on AI reflect a growing global interest in investment in AI development. Image courtesy of SV Klimkin


And, while Russia is not currently considered a leader in AI research, it does make one wonder what exactly Putin has in mind. Right now, the United States and China lead AI research, and China has announced their intent to pull ahead by 2030, according to The Verge, who also suggests that a Trump administration threatening funding for science and technology may make that easier than ever.

Reactions and Concerns

AI can do a lot of cool things, but some fear that isn’t exactly what Putin is referring to. The impending dawn of AI represents a new chapter in modern warfare in which cyber weapons and autonomous tools are more deadly than ever.

In his speech, Putin suggested a future in which wars are fought by drones. “When one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender,” Putin said in an AP article.

Google Deepmind's head, Mustafa Suleyman, and SpaceX and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, along with other leaders of industry, recently brought the United Nations a letter asking for regulations on AI weapons development. It's worth noting, however, that Musk's recent remarks about AI leading to the third world war have been met with considerable criticism. Musk’s denouncers argue that Putin’s remarks reflect a new way of thinking about the way that AI will impact geopolitical relations, and perhaps should not be read as a call to war.

Musk is no stranger to controversial solutions and even hyperbole, but if AI isn’t set up to play the role he anticipates in global politics and even war, what role will it play?

Artificial Intelligence in the Military

Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs published a July study suggesting that the US military will expand use of AI in the next five years, pending answers to several questions that authors Greg Allen and Taniel Chan raise. They establish three goals for AI policy and national security:

  1. Preserving US technological leadership
  2. Supporting peaceful and commercial use
  3. Mitigating catastrophic risk

Below, you can see the "scorecard" Allen and Chan created for assessing these goals:


From page 53 of the study. Click image to enlarge


The report focuses heavily on robotics, stating that their use will increase dramatically, in part because the same increase in technology is being seen amongst groups like ISIS.

Drones and Smart Weapons

In early 2017, the US Department of Defence demonstrated a swarm of micro-drones in California in which 103 drones collaborated in decision making, adaptive formation flying, and even self-healing. We likely haven’t seen the last of this kind of technology, so long as advances in battery power and radar observability continue, as well.

We’re likely to see autonomous stealth drones, too, which identify a target and then request permission from a human operator to interact (or strike, as the case may be).

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already trialled bullets capable of following and striking targets, as well as smart bombs that can guide themselves using sensors and cameras.


Image courtesy of DARPA.


BAE Systems is also developing railguns that rely on electromagnetic energy to fire shells further and with more speed than before, and DARPA is working on a chip that delivers data on maps as well as strategy for battle directly into the brains of soldiers.

The Bottom Line

There are certainly many unknowns regarding artificial intelligence, particularly as it pertains to its role in modern warfare. Leaders like Suleyman and Musk, while alarmist in tone, are ultimately calling for regulations that might help guide the future—and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  • R
    ronsoy2 September 15, 2017

    AI killer drones can be easily hardened against EMP so a swarm of them can be sent to “do in” an enemy. All working without human intervention to seek and kill anything that is human! All we need is AI factories that can replicate the killer drones and keep on launching them by the millions! All without human intervention! Seek and kill humans! While right now it seems unlikely, in the 90’s even the drones we now have were unlikely!

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  • Leslie Han May 03, 2019

    I don’t know what they are thinking now. Smile in front of you and prepare for war behind your back.

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