November 6, 2019

A few takeaways from ABCD 2019 on disruptive technologies

Andres Teiss
President Kersti Kaljulaid at the ABCD Conference.
President Kersti Kaljulaid at the ABCD Conference.

The Annual Baltic Conference on Defence 2019 focused on disruptive technologies, how they may alter the character of conflict or erode the West’s political, economic and military edge and ways to improve the ability of Western defence establishments to benefit from these technologies.

The conference saw a long and impressive list of speakers, including Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia, Florence Parly, Minister of Armed Forces of France, John C. Rood, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (US DoD) and Giedrimas Jeglinskas, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Executive Management.

This piece is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of all takeaways from ABCD 2019 but, instead, highlights a number of thoughts and conclusions expressed by several speakers. Please note however that these opinions are not necessarily shared by all participants.

The need for a sense of urgency

The West can no longer afford to spend decades on research and development before a new capability is fielded. Sometimes it may be better to introduce new systems faster at the cost of being slightly less capable. Also, acquisition cycles must become shorter to charter for shorter technology life-cycles.

Excessive risk aversion

Today, Europe rewards risk-minimization rather than risk-taking when it comes to disruptive innovation. How will the European Defence Fund help overcome this? Risk-minimization is time-consuming and a luxury that we may no longer be able to afford in an era of shorter technology life-cycles.

Avoid banning of and overregulating new technologies

We should not ban or overregulate the use of new technologies since our competitors are unlikely to constrain themselves. ‘If we don’t do it, others will’, including authoritarian regimes. So far, there have been setbacks, such as San Francisco’s recent decision to ban government agencies and the police from using facial-recognition software.  Instead, we should regulate better so we may benefit from new technologies while still minimizing risks to human rights, democracy, the cohesion of NATO and the survival of civilisation.

The need to retain meaningful human control of autonomous systems

Different views were expressed regarding to what extent humans should remain “in the loop” for actions that involve crossing a moral threshold, such as targeting and lethal action, since machines often make better decisions than humans. Would decision-making by autonomous systems be acceptable if they are better at avoiding collateral damage than humans? What parts of the decision-making cycle could be delegated to autonomous systems? Deep learning algorithms may evolve in the directions we might not be able to fully grasp and control. The conference made clear that there are grey zones that need to be explored and a spirited debate demonstrated the need for further discussion in order to enable informed policy decisions.

The hesitance to experiment and fail

NATO possesses a vast network of scientists to tap into and ample capabilities for concept development and experimentation. Unless the gap between Europe and the US in thinking about, experimenting with and developing disruptive technologies as well as harnessing them for military purposes is bridged, this divide will sharpen the already existing problems of interoperability, cohesion and transatlantic burden-sharing. Defence establishments and political decisionmakers should improve the often poor innovation culture and their understanding of disruptive technologies in particular.

 

The conference was organised by the International Centre for Defence and Security in cooperation with the Estonian Ministry of Defence, the armament and industry cooperation network ASERA, and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. ABCD 2019 was supported by Nammo, Milrem Robotics, Eurospike, Saab, Kongsberg, BAE Systems, Milrem LCM, DefSecIntel and Threod Systems.

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