The birth of artificial intelligence arguably took place during the Second World War when the Allies constructed the then-revolutionary decipherment machines that were designed to crack the Nazis’ Enigma code. These rudimentary computers were based on the theoretical foundations laid by Alan Turing, himself an integral part of the Allied code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park. Indeed, throughout history, military and defence organisations have leveraged intelligence and technology to their strategic advantage, as the Allies did with Turing and his ground-breaking insights into the theory of computation.
This radical technological development usually filters back into wider society. The armed forces have long had a reputation for turning their R&D into successful industries in the civilian world — many technologies we use today have emerged from military laboratories: GPS, for example, was developed during navy experiments in the 1960s, while the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — created after the unexpected Soviet launch of Sputnik — has been a factory of innovation and an accelerator for progress in applied sciences.
And yet, this military resourcefulness seems to have dried up — at least in the UK. The Ministry of Defence’s annual expenditure for R&D is around £1.3 billion, far less than what many private companies are willing to spend. This can be explained by a shortage of funding: the MoD is unwilling to bear the costs and risks of developing new equipment. New projects are expensive and often take a long time to get off the ground. The Royal Navy’s plan to build two new aircraft carriers, for example, has been a protracted affair, and one which has seen costs (over £6.4 billion) ballooning out of control.
In response to these shortcomings, small private companies from the UK’s world-leading defence industry are now beginning to supply the innovative research so desperately needed by the army. A new generation of venture-backed tech start-ups believe that they can revolutionise traditional defence procurement — long thought to be obsolete — by bringing advanced civilian technologies into the defence and security sector. The adoption of this cutting-edge research will drive modernisation and transform military facilities using home-grown technology.
The government’s recent increase in defence spending is likely to accelerate this boom in military tech companies. Last month, Britain approved the largest rise to the defence budget since the Cold War, pledging an additional £16.5 billion for defence over the next four years. The prime minister said the extra cash would go towards the creation of a new space command and artificial intelligence agency. This is good news for AI startups which are expected to contribute to these nascent areas of military capability.
Indeed, the long-term strategic value of AI has been continuously reiterated by the intelligence and defence communities in the UK; they believe that technological superiority in emerging arenas of conflict is a necessity for this country. The four-star generals and chiefs of staff see artificial intelligence as having a multi-faceted applicability across theatres of war, whether that be on land, sea, or air.
In the future, they argue, AI could identify enemy submarines from complex sonar data. It could run automated computer-network defences that detect cyber-attacks and then patch up vulnerabilities ad hoc. It could use machine learning algorithms to filter through hours of video footage and then isolate suspected terrorists and insurgents. It could shoot down drones, aim tank guns, plan artillery barrages, and piece together difference sensor feeds into a more complete picture.
Some of these innovations are already in development. Here are three AI startups redefining the defence sector:
Founded in 2006, British company Adarga — the etymology of which comes from the word for an old Moorish shield — has developed a proprietary AI engine that allows its clients to analyse large, unstructured datasets with the detection of meaningful patterns and anomalies. Put simply, it compresses ever-growing mountains of data into manageable and evaluable insights. This automated analysis is fast and efficient and has the potential to unlock hidden value in data. It also frees up human expertise from time-intensive tasks and allows them to concentrate on more complex assignments.
The company was set up by Rob Bassett Cross, a former army officer and special operations expert, who spotted AI’s potential for military intelligence-gathering while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem he faced there — and afterwards as an investment banker at JP Morgan — was a simple one: too much information and not enough time to properly scrutinise it. This had serious repercussions: in a warzone, overlooked data can cost lives.
The UK government is a client: Adarga currently supplies its services to Strategic Command — the organisation which oversees the UK’s armed forces — as well as the finance and insurance sectors.
AI analytics is a potentially lucrative market. The dark arts of data science have yielded considerable financial success for Adarga’s US counterparts. The secretive Palantir — a big data company founded by tech billionaire Peter Thiel — is thriving for example; its data-sieving platform is used by the US military (as well as financial corporations and the NHS, among others).
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2. Rebellion Defense
The Washington DC-based software startup Rebellion Defense offers customers AI and machine learning tools related to data analysis, cyber security, and communications. Although its AI capabilities are still shrouded in secrecy, the company sells its software to governmental clients including the US Navy and the UK’s MoD.
One area Rebellion has focussed on is the analysis of video filmed via drone. Here, there are striking similarities to the ill-fated Project Maven, a Google-backed project undertaken with the Pentagon to develop AI for the US drone programme. Not everybody in the Silicon Valley behemoth was happy about the prospects of working on defence contracts and Google eventually mothballed its plans after more than 3,000 employees protested in 2018.
Rebellion is led by co-founder and CEO Chris Lynch, who was integral in launching the Pentagon’s Defence Digital Service (DDS). As director of the DDS, he also helped set up the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (JEDI) contract for cloud computing. Lynch’s strong connections with both the Pentagon and individual start-ups points to the ever-growing relationship between governmental departments and the technology sector.
3. Improbable Defence
A subdivision of Improbable Worlds — the gaming technology business — the defence side of this business offers customers a war-gaming service. This enables the construction of simulated environments, within which clients can play out military scenarios, investigating how factors like troop morale and ammunition supplies affect the probability of a successful operation.
The logic behind Improbable’s modelling platform is that their virtually-created worlds can be used to realistically simulate the complexity of the modern world, without any of the risks. This allows defence clients to experiment, test plans, conduct training and improve overall organisational preparedness before taking real-world decisions. According to Improbable’s website, synthetic environments provides insight to “those asking questions of complex systems”.
The start-up has just signed another 12-month contract with the UK’s Strategic Command while the MoD has already spent more than £8.3 million on Improbable’s software, a figure that will increase significantly over the next year. The British company has also just expanded into the US, hiring a number of Pentagon officials as advisors.
AI: redefining defence and security
In a rapidly evolving world, AI is redefining the defence and security landscape. A growing number of AI startups are seeking new commercial opportunities for their technology in defence contracting. They see lucrative room for their software-as-a-service products in a sector that has traditionally been dominated by established companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
This is important because state-level adversaries — such as Russia and China — are already embracing the proliferating developments in the technology of war, and successful data breaches like the recent ransomware hack of CD Projekt are becoming increasingly common.
The UK’s forces cannot match these adversaries in terms of quantity. Rather, superiority will be achieved by greater quality. Just as the Allies utilised Turing’s ingenuity to decipher the Enigma code and turn the tide against the Axis powers in the Second World War, so Britain today has again begun to realise the value of technological dominance in warfare. AI is one part of this.
Written by Archie Phillpotts, freelance journalist