Is Machine Learning a National Security Matter?

by Lily Adelstein

October 19, 2021 2 min read

A few weeks ago, trade between the United States, France and Australia became front-page news. Australia committed to a submarine deal with France worth billions of dollars but in the final moments of the deal, it became clear that the U.S. had instead won the contract leaving France out in the cold. One explanation for this awkward business display was that the French submarines were not as technologically advanced as their U.S. counterparts and in the end, Australia required a fleet that would elevate its defense capabilities for years to come.

This drama resulted in cancelled parties, withdrawn French diplomats and the restructuring of how we think about U.S. foreign policy, but this deal also demonstrated the importance of the U.S.’s high tech capabilities as it relates to foreign policy and national security.

The Prime Minister of Australia also included when speaking about the deal that, "the reinforced security alliance with the United States and Britain....will include collaborations on artificial intelligence and other emerging technology."

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are woven into our diplomacy and national security because in order to be at the fore-front of technological advances, which is a security priority for the U.S., machine learning is a must. The implications of the technologies developed by the U.S. are widespread, not only are they used by the U.S. itself but also among its allies, as seen in this recent sale of the nuclear-submarines to Australia.

Submarines in particular are a ripe arena for machine learning and artificial intelligence. In the murky waters of the ocean, information about the surrounding environment is hard for humans to detect; however, by collecting vast amounts of data, machine learning can help detect threats and derive insights.

When thinking about defense submarines, one of the main priorities and challenges is understanding the deep and expansive ocean landscape. This is critical in order to steer a ship away from dangerous elements and to identify possible enemies.

In 2020 the Pentagon reported $175 billion dollars in sales of weapons to foreign governments, and while there is an important conversation to be had here about the potentially harmful impacts of these sales and the responsibility the U.S. bears as a seller of these types of goods, it is clear that these sales are an important part of current U.S. foreign policy.

CNBC reported the following quote by Heidi Grant, U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency Director:

The [defense equipment] sales demonstrate the United States continues to be the global security partner of choice. Not only do we already offer the most advanced defense equipment in the world, we’re also increasingly adapting to meet the technical needs of our allies and partner militaries.

I imagine we will see machine learning used more and more as a critical part of being able to 'meet the technical needs of our allies and partner militaries'.

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