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Trust in the machine: Innovation in AI drives navies to think afresh

Advanced sensors, modern high-speed data processing, and wide bandwidth communications have massively increased the volume and velocity of information available to naval commanders and warfare teams in the modern era. This brings both opportunities and challenges: opportunities because it provides the potential for greater understanding and insight to inform well-founded and decisive decision-making; and challenges because the sheer quantity of information threatens to overwhelm the cognitive abilities of human operators.

A sailor stands watch in the combat information centre on board the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) during a combat systems training scenario. Warfare operators face a massively increased volume and velocity of information. (US Navy)

It is this quandary that is driving navies to explore the design, development and implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques in many areas of operations. Advocates see the application of AI algorithms as a means to make sense of big data, reduce the stress placed on individual operators, and ensure that decision-makers can make sound judgments based on clear and rationalised information presented in intuitive and easy-to-use formats.

At the same time, the implementation of AI in warships raises many questions that need answering with regard to suitability, accountability, and validation. In particular, the issue of ‘weaponisation’ brings with it numerous legal and ethical dilemmas.

Above all, there is a need for human operators to grow trust in AI and to understand the limits of technology: there are many tasks where human intuition and judgement will be preferred to the clinical logic of a machine.

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This article won 'Best Technology Submission' at the 2020 Defence Media Awards.

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