There has been a tremendous amount of hand wringing and nervousness about how so-called artificial intelligence might end up destroying the world. The fretting has only gotten worse as a result of a U.S. State Department-commissioned report on the security risk of weaponized AI.

Whether these messages come from popular films like a War Games or The Terminator, reports that in digital simulations AI supposedly favors the nuclear option more than it should, or the idea that AI could assess nuclear threats quicker than humans—all of these scenarios have one thing in common: they end with nukes (almost) being launched because a computer either had the ability to pull the trigger or convinced humans to do so by simulating imminent nuclear threat. The purported risk of AI comes not just from yielding “control" to computers, but also the ability for advanced algorithmic systems to breach cybersecurity measures or manipulate and social engineer people with realistic voice, text, images, video, or digital impersonations

But there is one easy way to avoid a lot of this and prevent a self-inflicted doomsday: don’t give computers the capability to launch devastating weapons. This means both denying algorithms ultimate decision making powers, but it also means building in protocols and safeguards so that some kind of generative AI cannot be used to impersonate or simulate the orders capable of launching attacks. It’s really simple, and we’re by far not the only (or the first) people to suggest the radical idea that we just not integrate computer decision making into many important decisions–from deciding a person’s freedom to launching first or retaliatory strikes with nuclear weapons.

First, let’s define terms. To start, I am using "Artificial Intelligence" purely for expediency and because it is the term most commonly used by vendors and government agencies to describe automated algorithmic decision making despite the fact that it is a problematic term that shields human agency from criticism. What we are talking about here is an algorithmic system, fed a tremendous amount of historical or hypothetical information, that leverages probability and context in order to choose what outcomes are expected based on the data it has been fed. It’s how training algorithmic chatbots on posts from social media resulted in the chatbot regurgitating the racist rhetoric it was trained on. It’s also how predictive policing algorithms reaffirm racially biased policing by sending police to neighborhoods where the police already patrol and where they make a majority of their arrests. From the vantage of the data it looks as if that is the only neighborhood with crime because police don’t typically arrest people in other neighborhoods. As AI expert and technologist Joy Buolamwini has said, "With the adoption of AI systems, at first I thought we were looking at a mirror, but now I believe we're looking into a kaleidoscope of distortion... Because the technologies we believe to be bringing us into the future are actually taking us back from the progress already made."

Military Tactics Shouldn’t Drive AI Use

As EFF wrote in 2018, “Militaries must make sure they don't buy into the machine learning hype while missing the warning label. There's much to be done with machine learning, but plenty of reasons to keep it away from things like target selection, fire control, and most command, control, and intelligence (C2I) roles in the near future, and perhaps beyond that too.” (You can read EFF’s whole 2018 white paper: The Cautious Path to Advantage: How Militaries Should Plan for AI here

Just like in policing, in the military there must be a compelling directive (not to mention the marketing from eager companies hoping to get rich off defense contracts) to constantly be innovating in order to claim technical superiority. But integrating technology for innovation’s sake alone creates a great risk of unforeseen danger. AI-enhanced targeting is liable to get things wrong. AI can be fooled or tricked. It can be hacked. And giving AI the power to escalate armed conflicts, especially on a global or nuclear scale, might just bring about the much-feared AI apocalypse that can be avoided just by keeping a human finger on the button.

We’ve written before about how necessary it is to ban attempts for police to arm robots (either remote controlled or autonomous) in a domestic context for the same reasons. The idea of so-called autonomy among machines and robots creates the false sense of agency–the idea that only the computer is to blame for falsely targeting the wrong person or misreading signs of incoming missiles and launching a nuclear weapon in response–obscures who is really at fault. Humans put computers in charge of making the decisions, but humans also train the programs which make the decisions.

AI Does What We Tell It To

In the words of linguist Emily Bender,  “AI” and especially its text-based applications, is a “stochastic parrot” meaning that it echoes back to us things we taught it with as “determined by random, probabilistic distribution.” In short, we give it the material it learns, it learns it, and then draws conclusions and makes decisions based on that historical dataset. If you teach an algorithmic model that 9 times out of 10 a nation will launch a retaliatory strike when missiles are fired at them–the first time that model mistakes a flock of birds for inbound missiles, that is exactly what it will do.

To that end, AI scholar Kate Crawford argues, “AI is neither artificial nor intelligent. Rather, artificial intelligence is both embodied and material, made from natural resources, fuel, human labor, infrastructures, logistics, histories, and classifications. AI systems are not autonomous, rational, or able to discern anything without extensive datasets or predefined rules and rewards. In fact, artificial intelligence as we know it depends entirely on a much wider set of political and social structures. And due to the capital required to build AI at scale and the ways of seeing that it optimizes AI systems are ultimately designed to serve existing dominant interests.” 

AI does what we teach it to. It mimics the decisions it is taught to make either through hypotheticals or historical data. This means that, yet again, we are not powerless to a coming AI doomsday. We teach AI how to operate. We give it control of escalation, weaponry, and military response. We could just not.

Governing AI Doesn’t Mean Making it More Secret–It Means Regulating Use 

Part of the recent report commissioned by the U.S. Department of State on the weaponization of AI included one troubling recommendation: making the inner workings of AI more secret. In order to keep algorithms from being tampered with or manipulated, the full report (as summarized by Time) suggests that a new governmental regulatory agency responsible for AI should criminalize and make potentially punishable by jail time publishing the inner workings of AI. This means that how AI functions in our daily lives, and how the government uses it, could never be open source and would always live inside a black box where we could never learn the datasets informing its decision making. So much of our lives is already being governed by automated decision making, from the criminal justice system to employment, to criminalize the only route for people to know how those systems are being trained seems counterproductive and wrong.

Opening up the inner workings of AI puts more eyes on how a system functions and makes it more easy, not less, to spot manipulation and tampering… not to mention it might mitigate the biases and harms that skewed training datasets create in the first place.


Machine learning and algorithmic systems are useful tools whose potential we are only just beginning to grapple withbut we have to understand what these technologies are and what they are not. They are neither “artificial” or “intelligent”they do not represent an alternate and spontaneously-occurring way of knowing independent of the human mind. People build these systems and train them to get a desired outcome. Even when outcomes from AI are unexpected, usually one can find their origins somewhere in the data systems they were trained on. Understanding this will go a long way toward responsibly shaping how and when AI is deployed, especially in a defense contract, and will hopefully alleviate some of our collective sci-fi panic.

This doesn’t mean that people won’t weaponize AIand already are in the form of political disinformation or realistic impersonation. But the solution to that is not to outlaw AI entirely, nor is it handing over the keys to a nuclear arsenal to computers. We need a common sense system that respects innovation, regulates uses rather than the technology itself, and does not let panic, AI boosters, or military tacticians dictate how and when important systems are put under autonomous control.