Eschewing the typical approach of past articles, this piece takes a look at AI and grand strategy through the central contention of Goliath, a new book on war and politics by former paratrooper and professor of military strategy at Georgetown University, Sean McFate. While his firebrand arguments are, in the eyes of this author, timely and valid, there seems to be little ground given in this intentionally provocative tome to the promise AI has for grand strategy, warfare and peacekeeping; rather, its effectiveness and utility will come from the proper and precise usage of such technology, not its inherent, terrifying power.


AI and Grand Strategy


The promise of AI for grand strategy is far ranging, from the deployment of autonomous weapons systems, drone swarms, autonomous aid and demolitions systems to the more abstract, high-level command issues of target identification and supply route choices. Such ‘decision aids’ are now commonplace in military command strategy, helping guide war efforts with efficiency savings.


The Claims of McFate


McFate’s argument goes something like as follows; the West has forgotten the rules of warfare, and places far too much faith in magic bullet technologies like aircraft carriers, artificial intelligence and robotics than military strategy. More broadly, we have forgotten that the aim of war is to win, and investments into extraneous, often extraordinarily expensive gadgetry designed for outdated methods of combat is crippling our strategic ability and goals. AI, for McFate, is but the latest fad in a series of injudicious leaps of faith in machinery, rather than in the soldiers and strategists behind them. This jars with Vladamir Putin’s famous statement on the promise of such technology, boldly stating in 2017 that whoever becomes the leader in AI ‘will become the ruler of the world’. While AI certainly has the greatest potential of emerging technologies to transform the way we think about and practise business and warfare, one must be careful not to misinterpret Putin’s word, as McFate argues Western military command’s have. AI, in all its forms, presents no obvious advantage for any company, army or government that cannot contextualise it within a much broader strategic framework for the future thirty years.

This chimes well with the recently promised deep-reaching defence review announced by the British Prime Minister’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, upon their winning a Conservative majority two weeks ago. MP’s and strategists alike have praised the approach adopted by the incoming government to both foreign policy and spending reviews, rolling back DFID into the Foreign Office while overhauling expensive projects with limited strategic value. The purchase of two state-of-the-art Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are a case in point, presenting little overall strategic value to the UK for massive costs, and while they are technically impressive their role in the high-intensity, high-paced drone warfare skirmishes of the future is limited at best. 

This is the core of McFate’s wider lamentations concerning AI and grand strategy; the continuing danger is for dominant states to invest in such technology almost for the sake of it, assuming dominance rather than planning how to achieve it. The UK remains a major military power today in spite of the size of its armed forces, rather than because of them. Its political, cultural, linguistic and diplomatic clout extend its interests far beyond what two souped-up 1940’s floating cities can ever hope to provide, and without a clear purpose for their existence they risk us lagging behind developments that can help shore up this vast soft power Britain maintains. 

For Britain especially this reflects a wider decentralisation and decoherence of matters both constitutional and strategic since the early 1970’s. Efforts must be redoubled by countries prioritising key freedoms and rights with regard to AI, particularly in military strategy, to make sure technological ability and power projection maintain their preeminent status in the world. For grand strategy, this involves less of a Trumpian and more of Johnsonian approach; rather than boosting military budgets ad infinitum, tighten the spending and acquisition of technologies whilst investing in military command models, both human and autonomous. AI today remains, to borrow a phrase, ‘narrow and brittle’. It lacks capacity to perform beyond that of its particular and rigorously defined functions, requiring constant oversight, supervision and human intervention. Integrating decision support units into a single ‘synthetic command tool’ that can analyse huge volumes of data far quicker than traditional methods may prove to be the decisive role for AI in grand strategy. Such systems would serve to bridge the gap between these big symbolic projects that McFate so often derides, such as the F-35 program, drone swarms and aircraft carriers, with his insistence on modernised investment in military command and leadership. As he rightly warns, gadgets are no replacement for an efficient and effective military command, and in seeking to modernise our forces, perhaps we ought to look backward first, before we begin deploying our technologies of tomorrow.


AI and Grand Strategy in Tomorrow’s World


This, in many ways, supports arguments that this blog has been making since its inception. AI is a tool to advance and support, rather than overtake, the vital tasks facing businesses, militaries, governments and administrative departments across the world. Indeed, like the most useful tools humanity has come to master during its short spell at the top of the food chain, AI presents us an opportunity to develop previously laborious systems into . It is not, as some would have it, a magic bullet, although its ramifications will be as wide-ranging as to have that effect in some areas of the economy. It is a partnership that must be nurtured, fostered and understood, before it can be harnessed to its maximum potential. To misunderstand it is, as McFate notes, a disaster both for those who place too much faith in its intrinsic magicks, and those who fail to develop with it…


Written by Daniel Skeffington



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